Spirit Notes

Tuesday, September 8, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

Any of you who have ever had the misfortune of running into me in the grocery store are probably aware that grocery shopping is not my favorite task.* I am not a fan of the crowded aisles, the mental juggling of trying to remember which brand of paper towels I have a coupon for, and the ever-present danger that my four-year-old will pull down an entire mountain of peaches. I sit in my car before a grocery trip, psyching myself up for battle as I prepare to complete my dreaded weekly chore. As some of you know first hand, I can at times be so engrossed in my list and my single-minded focus on getting done with the shopping, that I can look right at people and not actually “see” them unless someone speaks to me first.

On the rare occasions when I do pay attention to the world around me in the grocery store, however, I become aware of the fact that the store is simply filled with opportunities to exude God’s grace to others. Cashiers, for instance, get yelled at on a regular basis. We have the opportunity to be a part of the problem, standing stony-faced in the line while scrutinizing the screen to make sure our lettuce rings up at the right price, or we can be a part of God’s grace, smiling and engaging that person in conversation about his or her day. We can grump at people using the aisle for conversation instead of moving out of the way so we can get to the canned tomato sauce, or we can smile at them and take a cue from their relaxed appreciation of the day. If I get my attitude set in the right place before I ever go in the store to begin with, a dreaded chore can become an opportunity to be a force for grace and joy in the midst of my ordinary day.

My guess is that today you will do something, at least one thing, which you would rather not have to do. You may have no choice over having to do it, but you do get to choose the attitude you bring to the task. Will you use your boring, mundane moments today to bring joy and grace into the lives of others? God calls us be catching fishers of people.

*Some of you will read this and wonder why I don’t just send Andy to do the shopping if it’s so onerous to me. Well, let me just tell you: I married a saint who cleans bathrooms and does laundry. The least I can do is shield him from the drudgery of Dillons. 🙂

Thursday, September 10, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

Many people make the mistaken assumption that outside events can cause the internal emotions we feel. As with my four-year-old, who looks up at me with trembling lips and brimming eyes to tell me, “Mama, you made me so sad when you asked me to eat that broccoli,” we often assume that the feelings we are experiencing are the direct result of someone else’s behavior, some part of our lives over which we have no control. If I must wait in line on a day when I am in a hurry, I feel frustrated. If I can’t get through to a family member when I have tried to call them, I feel anxious and worried. We tend to assume that events cause emotions.

Behavioral research, however, has indicated to us that this is not actually true. It is not the events in our lives which cause our emotions, but rather our interpretations of these events. If I place a call to my family member, and get no response, I can then interpret that event as a sign something is horribly wrong. I let my imagination carry me to all the terrible possible causes of this lack of response, and the resulting emotion I feel is anxiety or fear. If, however, I interpret this lack of response as a sign my family member is just exceptionally busy today, I may just feel slightly annoyed or even amused at how hard it is to communicate with that person. The same event, interpreted through two different lenses, produces two different emotions.

Why does all this matter? I believe how we choose to interpret the events around us gives us a greater sense of control and empowerment over our lives. Instead of being victims of the circumstances of our lives and the behaviors of others around us, we get to control, to a certain extent, how particular events cause us to feel. When I am stuck in line, I can choose to interpret this event as a major annoyance to my day, and feel frustrated, or I can choose to interpret it as an unexpected chance to collect my thoughts and have a few moments of down time, thus feeling relaxed and possibly even a little appreciative of the break. The same event is happening, taking up the same amount of time in my day, but I get to choose which outcome it produces within me.

I invite you this day to become aware of the places in your life where you are just reacting against something negative, allowing yourself to feel overwhelmed, angry, or resentful, and in those moments to see if you can find a different way to interpret the events that are happening to you, and thus to feel differently. If nothing else, I invite you to consider using the interpretation, “What is God saying to me in the midst of this event?” I think you will probably find that your attitude toward many things begins to shift, and in the midst of that, you can feel the Spirit speaking to you in new ways, every moment of every day, even on the days when someone forces you to eat broccoli.

Saturday, September 12, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

As you look back on the previous week you just completed, what can you say you “accomplished?” Often we beat ourselves up for having not accomplished enough, not checked off enough tasks, not finished enough projects. We measure the progress of our lives by the sum total of our efforts at “getting things done,” and by that measure there are never enough hours in the day to finish all that we must do. We are constantly behind, finding ourselves never feeling truly finished, guilty if we even contemplate taking time to rest.

But I invite you today to take stock of the previous week through a different lens right now. How many smiles did you give this week? How many times did you genuinely listen to someone when they needed to visit? How many times did you strive to be a force for God’s grace in the world? By that measure, I am guessing you accomplished far more than you realize. Never underestimate the power of what God can do through you when you open your life up to be used by the Spirit. As you touch the lives of people around you, their lives are changed and they touch others, like the proverbial ripples on the surface of the pond. The average person directly influences approximately 10,000 other people across the course of their lives, who in turn influences thousands of others. Your work for God this week became a part of the kingdom of God in this world that Jesus spent so much time teaching about in his ministry. Take a moment today to rest, if you can, to catch your breath a moment if possible, and to thank God for using you this week in sacred and endless ways, in your own life and in the lives of countless others.

Tuesday, September 15, Written by Becky Ericson

A few weeks ago, I gave my child permission to have ONE chocolate chip cookie for part of an after school snack. I set the cookie box out on the counter for her and left the room to get something from another room. Upon returning, my daughter had disappeared and the cookie box was missing TWO cookies. When approached about it, she stuffed what remained of the cookies into her mouth and vehemently denied taking two. I showed her the cookie box and expressed my disappointment (along with the consequence of her choice), but she still would not admit to taking an extra cookie. I was completely baffled as to why she thought she could hide something so obvious. About a week later, I caught her off-guard and she finally confessed, but she certainly was determined to keep that extra cookie a secret from me.

This week, we are looking more closely at honesty and vulnerability in our relationship with God. I don’t know about you, but I am certain that I’ve tried to hide my fair share of “chocolate chip cookies” from God. Looking back on it, I can now see how silly I was! God knew how I felt or what I was going through – if only I would have had the courage to be honest and vulnerable. I could have experienced the peace of God’s presence instead of the stress and strain I placed on my relationship with God.

How about you? Are there any “cookies” you are trying to hide? How might you grow to be more honest in your relationship with God?

Thursday, September 17, Written by Becky Ericson

As a child, I really could not tell a lie to my parents. I would try sometimes, but inevitably I would develop a terribly guilty conscience and tearfully spill the truth within moments of uttering the lie.  As a result, I always considered myself to be a pretty honest person growing up.

As I grew older, I came to realize that sometimes it isn’t easy to recognize dishonesty. It is amazing how easily we can trick our brains into seeing a lie as the truth. Take my daughter from the chocolate chip cookie story on Tuesday, for example: she kept telling me that she didn’t take the cookie and eventually I believe she started to believe her own lie! Ever been there?

I’ve been thinking this week about how this applies to my relationship with God. I know there have been times in my life where it felt like God was perhaps calling me to do something outside my comfort zone. Instead of taking the risk and saying yes, I found excuses to say no. “I’m too busy – I can’t handle the extra stress.”  “It looks like a lot of people are helping, they don’t need me.”  “God really isn’t calling me to do that – He knows that’s one of my weaknesses.”  After telling myself these phrases often enough, I became convinced that they were the truth and I knew what was best.  Can you relate? Would you agree that this is a form of dishonesty?

I can’t change the past, but I also can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I said yes? Some of the best moments of my life happened because I took a risk and responded to that little tug on my heart.

I also wonder what would have happened if I would have just told God up front, “I think I hear you calling me to do this, but that really scares me!  I don’t want to do it! Help me!” Stories in the Bible tell of people who have done just that, and God always provided for them. Take Moses, for example. When Moses encounters God at the burning bush, God commands Moses to go and set the Israelites free. Moses didn’t exactly jump up and down with excitement at this command. Instead, he continually questions God: “Who I am to do this? What in the world am I going to say when the Israelites question who sent me? What if they don’t believe me? I can’t speak eloquently. God, please send someone else!” Now that is an honest encounter with God! Moses’ honesty brought forth an amazing response from God.  Yes, God grew frustrated with Moses as Moses kept questioning and trying to get out of the task. Yet God also answered each of his questions and equipped him so that he would have confidence and would feel God’s presence.

Can you relate to Moses’ story? What do you think would happen if YOU were completely honest with God? Are you willing to give it a try?

Saturday, September 19, Written by Becky Ericson

Take a moment and think of someone in your life who knows you better than anyone else. What is that relationship like? Do you feel comfortable sharing anything with that person?

Now turn with me to the scripture from the sermon last week:

Lord, you have examined me. You know me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
3 You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
4 There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
that you don’t already know completely.
5 You surround me—front and back.
You put your hand on me.
6 That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it.
Psalm 139: 1-6 (CEB)

Wow! I love the way this translation is worded in verse 6. God’s knowledge of the psalmist is so intimate and great, the psalmist cannot wrap his human brain around it!

That particular verse has challenged me in a couple of ways this week. First, in keeping with the theme of this week, it reminded me that I really cannot hide anything from God. If I agree with the psalmist, then God’s knowledge of me is so great that it is beyond my comprehension. Who am I to try to hide things from God?

Second,it served as a reminder that there is so much about God that is (and always will be) beyond my understanding. I have a tendency to relate to God as a parent figure, likely because parenthood occupies a great deal of my time at this point in my life. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I’m realizing that perhaps I am doing it too much. If I am constantly personifying God as a parent, then I am limiting God. I am putting God in a comfortable little box that I can easily relate to, and perhaps missing out on something even greater or deeper in my relationship with God. What about you? Do you tend to cling to certain images of God or attempt to put God in a box? How might you challenge yourself to step outside this and marvel at a God whose knowledge is so great we cannot fathom it?

Tuesday, September 22, Written by Rev. Dr. Warren C. Swartz

A vital part of our Christian faith is the concept of JOY. Our Bible is the basis of our faith and that includes many stories of JOY. The word JOY is found in both the Old and New Testament more than 175 times. Psalm 65:13 tells us, “The meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for JOY.” In the New Testament, John 16:20, Jesus tells his disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn to JOY.”

Thursday, September 24, Written by Rev. Dr. Warren C. Swartz

A life without JOY is in reality a difficult and painful one. The Psalmist tells us in Psalm 4:6-7, “There are many who say, ‘Oh that we might see some good; let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord.’ You have put JOY in my heart more than their grain and wine abound.” It is God’s desire that JOY is a vital part of life. Make JOY a priority for living.

Saturday, September 26, Written by Rev. Dr. Warren C. Swartz

Some will say, “there is no JOY in life,” but upon close examination each of us has some JOY. The JOY of remembering, the JOY of family and friends. The JOY of awaking each morning with the challenge of a new beginning. Jesus told his disciples in John 15:11 when explaining his teachings, “I have said these things to you so that my JOY might be in yours, and that your JOY might be complete.” There is JOY in every life, sometimes hard to find, but keep searching.

Tuesday, September 29, Written by Rev. Rick Saylor

The book One Day My Soul Just Opened Up by Iyanla Vanzant is a fascinating read. It’s full of affirmation and wisdom about being open to God. Our Biblical tradition is full of stories related to having an open (or closed) spirit toward God. Last Sunday we looked at the story of Paul’s conversion and dramatic change brought about in his life by God’s grace!

This week as we ponder how to be aware of our spirit when God is at work changing us, consider sacred times when your “soul just opened up.” Moments that took your breath away. Occasions when you felt very whole and at peace. Reflect on times in your life that when you look back at it you can see God was trying to get your attention. Call to mind moments in your life, not fully explainable or rational, when you felt the presence and power of God with you.

Affirm with me that God is at work in your life, my life, in fact all of our lives at Countryside this week. God is at work, we only need to be open in a spirit of paying attention!

Prayer: Open my eyes, O God, to see where you are working in my life today! Amen.

Thursday, October 1, Written by Rev. Rick Saylor

This morning for my devotional time I read again Ecclesiastes 3 which begins: “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” I pondered on how that passage affirms that “change is part of human life.” Isn’t it true that we all experience change: both change we desire and do not desire, change we bring about and change brought upon us?

For example, my family was not expecting my father’s death. His symptoms, diagnosis and death occurred in four weeks and it’s a hard change to accept, all the more because it was quick and undesired. Though it was an “unwelcome change,” I believe God is in the midst of this change in my life. I certainly have experienced the presence of God in the midst of this change, for which I am grateful!

So, take time to consider the changes you are experiencing in your life, both desired and perhaps the undesired. Can you trust God to be with you though every change in your life? That’s the good news of the cross of Jesus Christ when Paul writes, “Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Let those words bring you peace, comfort and courage today!

Prayer: O God, help me find my way through the changes of my life. Amen.

Saturday, October 3, Written by Rev. Rick Saylor

“The bend in the road is not the end of the road unless you refuse to take the turn.” I’ve always been fascinated by this quote. Read it again and consider what all it implies! Life has bends in the road. We have choices how to face our roads. There is a road beyond the bend which we cannot see! Refusing to take turns (inflexibility) can be disastrous!

Consider today: what does it mean for you to be a “flexible person?” What happens to you when you are not? How, specifically, can God help you today maintain an open, flexible spirit?
Prayer: Living God, help me go with your flow today! Amen.

Tuesday, October 6, Written by Rev. Nancy Gammill

As a faith community, we have just finished celebrating World Communion Sunday. It struck me Sunday as it does every year, how easy it is to take for granted an observance that is happening not just at Countryside UMC but in Protestant churches across Topeka, across Kansas, the United States and even across the world. When you stop to think about it, that’s pretty mind blowing! At nearly the same time across the globe, allowing for time differences, of course, Christians everywhere are observing the amazing gift of love and grace that comes to us as we take into ourselves the body and blood of Jesus Christ. What power there is in that, and what mystery! If we take seriously the power that we have been given to offer hope, forgiveness, and love to others, even to our enemies, just imagine the change that might happen across our world. When we walk forward to receive Holy communion each month, we don’t come to the table as individuals, we come as a faith community, we come together. The Spirit of Christ has moved in us in such a way that we stand up, get out of our pews, and together as one, we come forward to the table and receive a gift that can not only change our hearts, but the hearts of all who receive it. It is not a meal meant to be received as lone rangers, but as persons who are committed to being part of a larger community called together by Christ and continually empowered by his Spirit.

In the Book of Acts, as the early church was being formed, there is a wonderful description of how that happened. “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power, the apostles gave their testimony in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great grace was upon them all; and there was not a needy person among them… “(Acts 4: 32-33a). What would it mean to be able to say that today, as a community of faith, as the church? There was not a needy person among them. We work as a church to help provide for those who need special care, both within and beyond our walls, but do we attend enough to the spiritual needs of those who sit next to us in the pews, who stand up and go with us to the front to receive holy communion? Do we even know who they are, how they think, what they do, if they are hurting or rejoicing over something in their lives? Let’s take the time and make the effort to truly get to know one another in the Spirit, so when we come together to share a meal, we come as brothers and sisters, as family in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, October 8, Written by Rev. Nancy Gammill

Have you ever thought of your life as a “calling”? Sometimes we think that term refers to persons who have been set aside for some kind of religious vocation. When I was new in the ministry and going through the process of examination by one committee or the other on my way to ordination, inevitably I would be asked to describe my “calling” to the ministry. I sometimes was not at all sure how to answer. I didn’t have some kind of amazing experience where I heard God calling my name out of the heavens, or suddenly feel a warmth settle over my body in the middle of a church service, or know without a doubt that this was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. Some folks do have those kind of experiences and I am not denying those in any way, but for me, the calling was a gradual thing, and as I look back, I realize that much of it evolved over the years as I was a part of the community of one church or the other, beginning with the church I was brought up in. It was where I found “home,” it was where I first discovered what it meant to serve others, it was the place where I found friends and grew up in Sunday School and the youth groups, and later adult groups. It was the place where I went to when I needed emotional support, or wisdom from someone beyond myself. It was the place that grounded me when I was floundering a little in college, and the place that saved my life when my husband was killed and my son seriously injured. And in the midst of all that, it was the place where I heard voices, voices telling me I needed to explore further serving the Lord in a specific way, and eventually those voices led me to explore the ministry. My calling came as a result of many people leading the way and their voices helping me to make the right choices for me.

I believe we all have a calling that sometimes we don’t recognize right off, but if we are attentive to the voices around us and the people who are part of our lives, we will discover that the Spirit is leading us to do and be something we might never have imagined for ourselves. As Paul says in Ephesians 4 “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift……for the building up of the body of Christ.” As I pay attention to the folks in our church, I see those who have callings as teachers, as caregivers, as visitors, as greeters, as persons who share their music, or their gifts of speaking or leadership. Every gift that comes from the Spirit is shared from our hearts and received by others in that way, as genuine expressions of Christ’s love and grace, and lives are changed, by your gifts. Reflect for a little while this week on the voices who have spoken or offered love and grace to you, and you will discover the gift that God has given you. Who knows you may already be sharing it!

Saturday, October 10, Written by Rev. Nancy Gammill

The day my husband was killed in a car accident and my son suffered head injured in that same accident, we had only been in our new church for a week, barely enough time to get unpacked, let alone settled in to our new offices in the large church we were both serving as associate pastors. It happened on a snowy morning as we were on the way to the church, driving two cars because we were going in different directions later that day. My 4 year old son was with my husband in the second car and they were hit by a semi and my son survived. I can’t remember all that happened that day, but I do remember that after my husband died, my son was on his way in the ambulance to KU Med Center and the senior pastor of the church, whom I barely knew, was driving me and my other son to the hospital two and a half hours away. I have never felt so alone and lost in my life! Why would God let this happen to us, when we were simply trying to do what God had called us to do, to pick up in the middle of the year, leave behind our churches of 5 years, and go to an unknown place? I remember feeling gray that day, just gray, no feelings, just numb. The color gray. For two and a half hours, before the day of cell phones, we had no way of finding out what was happening to my son, whether he was alive or had died on the way.

What I do remember clearly was getting off the elevator on the floor where they had taken my son to do emergency surgery, and suddenly I was surrounded by everyone I knew, friends, colleagues, even my sister who had gotten there from Minneapolis before I could get to KC, and they were simply there holding us up almost literally, and slowly the gray began to lift, and I began little by little to see color again. I began to feel light as I was warmed by the love and hope all of these people offered me, and I realized that right there in that waiting room, we were holding church, we were surrounded by the love of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, and no longer was I alone. Nor was I every alone again for those long 6 weeks that we were in the hospital watching my son slowly progress to the point where he could return home. There was always someone with me, ready to take me out for some time apart, ready to pray with me, ready to hold me up on the day my son coded and almost died again, ready to laugh or to cry, and ready to rejoice when we finally were able to take him home and when I was ready to once again work as an associate at the new church. But perhaps what was most amazing in all of that was the outpouring of love from a congregation that barely knew me, people who traveled a long way to the hospital during those 6 weeks, who brought us tangible gifts of love but more importantly who offered us friendship and caring that sustained us then and continued to do so for the next 3 years that I served that congregation. My children and I have a very soft spot in our hearts for that wonderful congregation who showed us what it meant to be the church in the truest sense of the word.

True community happens when we offer Christ’s presence to one another, especially in the grayest moments of our lives. Just being there for someone makes all the difference, whether you have all the right words or do all the right things. When have you done that for someone? You may not even know that it changed someone’s life or someone’s outlook on life that made all the difference.

Tuesday, October 13, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

This past Sunday, Rick preached a sermon about Zacchaeus, one of the only people in the scripture to be described largely by his height: short, according to the scripture. Thinking about Zacchaeus’ quest to be seen as bigger always makes me think about my son, and really all children as well. Children have a deep seated yearning to be perceived as “big,” prompting the comments we often make to children when haven’t seen them in a while. “My, you’ve gotten so big! You’re becoming quite the big boy/girl!” I observed people beginning to make such comments to my son when he was about a week old, and I assume they will continue until whatever point in his life when he becomes a moody enough teenager that people are prompted to respond, “You know, you’re not as big as you think you are!”

As a child and eventually as a youth, we long to grow taller, earn more privileges, experience more freedom, and live autonomously in the world. When we become adults, particularly the responsible variety, we begin longing for the peace and simplicity of childhood. One of the great ironies of our human lives is that we rarely value and appreciate what we have until it is gone. Often we live perennially in a different time period, wishing either to get to the next milestone in life, or go back to the last one.

Jesus called us, however, to live in the present moment. “Do not worry about your lives,” he taught his disciples, “for who by worrying can add a single second to his or her life?” Yet so much of our mental time and energy is spent living in the past or the future that often we find ourselves unfocused and unappreciative of whatever is happening in front of us at any given second.

As I write this, it has taken me at least half an hour to finish the last paragraph because my son keeps wanting me to spell words out for him so he can write a letter to his daddy. It has been a maddening exercise in interruption, but sweet in its own way. More than once I have found myself thinking, “GAAA! I can’t wait until he can spell for himself!” Part of me knows, however, that I will long for the days of the interruptions once they are gone. I try, imperfectly at best, to live in the present moment, trusting in God’s grace when I inevitably find myself mentally in the future or the past, missing the moment in front of me.

So this week, I encourage you to make a concerted effort to notice the present moment of time. When you catch yourself mentally wandering, as we all do, come back and notice what is happening in front of you. Take comfort in the God who calls you to lay down your mental burdens and rest in the presence of the One who is greater than all our worries and cares. Trust that God cares for you every moment of every day. And… [This is as far as I got before I was interrupted to spell the words “I love you” for the hundredth time today. So if you’ll excuse me, I have a letter to write and a present moment to live in. May God’s Spirit fill our lives with such moments today and always.]

Thursday, October 15, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

I remember the day I learned I wasn’t Superwoman. It was a Thursday morning when my son was about six months old. I was preparing for a funeral and the babysitter who usually watched my son had an early morning commitment. She wasn’t going to be able to pick him up from the church until right before the funeral service. So I rushed around all morning feeding and caring for him, refusing all offers of people to hold him or watch him or take care of various tasks at the church, confident I could handle both of the roles.

The truth was, I desperately wanted to prove to myself and everyone around me that I Was Perfectly Capable of Doing Everything, and that I Could Do It All Myself With No Help From You, Thankyouverymuch. I knew deep down I wasn’t fulfilling either role very well, but somehow I just couldn’t give in and ask for the help I desperately needed to do everything I needed to accomplish for the day.

Ten minutes before the service began, the babysitter arrived to pick up my son, and I threw him and his diaper bag into her arms, rushed through my office to make sure I had all my papers and notes, and flew into the gathering room to pray with the family before the service. I held my head high because I Was A Capable Person Who Didn’t Need Help. I may have been exhausted, stressed out, and not functioning as a very good pastor or mother, but by golly I was going to do it myself.

Why is it that we human beings find it so difficult to receive the help that others so graciously offer to us? We make our lives considerably more difficult by refusing even the slightest offers of support from others. When the tables are turned, however, we long to be able to provide support to others when we see them struggling. We have no problem with the concept of people helping others in need, we just always want it to apply to someone else. Even more so in our relationship with God. None of us want to be seen as weak or helpless, so we struggle through difficult times without admitting to anyone or even God that we need others to walk alongside us. Yet the Bible tells us God desires for us to live abundant lives, and sometimes the abundance comes through the tangible support and help of others. Sometimes grace looks like a humble “Thank you,” instead of, “No thanks, I’m fine.” Sometimes abundant life is offered to us through our loved ones in our time of need. We just have to be in a mindset to receive it.

At the funeral dinner after the service, one of the ladies serving the dinner approached me. “Pastor Morgan,” she said quietly, “we’ve been trying to tell you this all morning, but the baby puked all down the back of your navy jacket. You have white spit up all over you. We’ve been trying to hold the baby so you could go in the bathroom and wash it out before the service. We love you and the funeral service was wonderful, but maybe next time you could let us help you a little bit.”

Sometimes receiving God’s grace means graciously thanking a UMW lady as she scrubs your jacket out in the church bathroom while you hide in your office with a very strong cup of coffee to contemplate the events of the day.

And sometimes in order to receive God’s grace, you have to take off your Superwoman cape first.

Saturday, October 17, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

Many years ago my phone rang one Saturday morning with an urgent request from a parishioner to meet her at the hospital. Her husband had been admitted through the ER with potential heart problems, and she was terrified and alone. Overwhelmed with the medical decisions she was having to make, and lonely while she awaited the arrival of her family, she simply wanted me to come sit with her while she held her husband’s hand and prayed.

As I drove through the country to the small rural hospital near them, I prayed for her husband and tried to recall what little I knew of him. I had met him a few times at events like Christmas Eve, but he was a farmer and worked many long hours, so I had spent very little time around him. He was a big, tall, strong man with a booming voice and a firm handshake who had to duck when he entered a room to avoid hitting his head on the door frame. When he spoke, people quieted down and listened. I remembered how he had once chastised me for not letting my car warm up long enough before I got ready to drive away, and how I had fleetingly thought at the time that he was likely the type of guy the CIA would hire if they needed to pick someone who could strangle another person with his bare hands. As I pulled in to the hospital parking lot, I realized I was slightly intimidated by him.

What greeted me when I arrived in the hospital room, however, was anything but the picture of intimidation. My big, strapping parishioner was laying in a hospital bed, pale as a ghost and covered in tubes and monitors. He smiled at me weakly and squeezed my hand very lightly when I prayed with him. I sat in his room for a while, visited quietly with his wife intermittently, and helped them negotiate the logistics of transferring him to a larger hospital. On my drive home, several hours later, I wondered whether he would make it through the next week.

Thankfully he made a full recovery, and was back to himself (albeit with strict instructions to lay off the potato chips and eat more salad) within a few months. One of the lessons his experience taught me as a brand new pastor, however, was how quickly we can end up in the position of being vulnerable. In an instant, we can go from being in charge and in control of ourselves and our surroundings to being almost completely dependent upon other people. Most of us might view this as a negative, but for many of us, being vulnerable allows us to experience a deeper kind of relationship with others than we would ever experience on normal days. “I had conversations during my time in the hospital that I would never have had otherwise,” my parishioner later told me, “and I saw a whole new side of people. It made a bad situation a lot easier to handle.”

My parishioner had been able to handle the stress of the situation because the gravity of it drew him closer to the people around him. In the scripture, when Jesus’ friend Lazarus dies, the first thing Jesus does, before bringing Lazarus back, was to cry with Mary and Martha. He opens himself up to being vulnerable, and is drawn closer to others because of it. In that moment, his love for them and willingness to be open with them enabled them to get through their time of distress.

This week we have been looking at the theme of God’s care for us. Nowhere is that care more evident than in the lives of the people around us who sincerely want to help. Being vulnerable to others may seem like a failure, but actually it is an opportunity for us to grow closer to one another. So don’t wait for the day to come when you are in the hospital – seek out that closeness now! Find the people you trust and share your deep struggles and cares with them, and listen as they share with you. I bet you anything that the more vulnerable you are, the more you will hear Jesus speaking to you in that conversation. My guess is that you’ll find a depth of love you never knew was possible.

PS: Don’t worry – he gave me permission to share the story. No intimidating farmers were harmed in the making of this devotional.

Tuesday, October 20, Written by Jamie Meyer

One of the first lessons we teach our children as parents is to say “I’m sorry.” Interestingly, we don’t really teach forgiveness. Children seem to have the innate ability to forgive, or let it go. They don’t hold a grudge or belabor the point. We have examples of people in the Bible who are sorry for what they have done. Zacchaeus was sorry for his treatment of those he extorted and gave back four times what he took (Luke 19:1-10). The thief on the cross acknowledged his wrongdoing and asked Jesus to remember him (Luke 23:40-43). In both instances, Jesus forgave them. I encourage you this week to be more like Jesus and accept the apologies of others and forgive – really let it go! Don’t worry about whether the apology was sincere, or that it may have been self-serving. Just smile and forgive.

For if you forgive people their wrongdoing, your Heavenly Father will forgive you as well.” Matthew 6:14

Thursday, October 22, Written by Jamie Meyer

All of us have had people in our lives who have hurt us, but never acknowledge it or apologize. Are we entitled to stay mad at them? Is there such a thing as righteous anger? Tuesday we talked about forgiving those people who apologize. I think we also need to forgive those who don’t! Sometimes the person may not realize the pain they have caused, so we need to forgive. Sometimes the person doesn’t care that they have caused pain – we still need to forgive them! When Peter asked if forgiving his brother seven times was enough, Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22). Jesus himself was an example of forgiveness as he hung on the cross and said, “Father forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). If you have someone in your life that you have been unable to forgive, I invite you to spend the next few days praying for them. Not that they would apologize or feel bad for their actions, but that God would work in their life – that He would bless them, and draw them near to Himself.

Saturday, October 24, Written by Jamie Meyer

As you read through my spirit notes this week, you may have realized that forgiveness is something that has not come easy to me. I used to be (and still work at not being) a huge grudge-holder! So why would I choose to write the devotions on forgiveness? Maybe to work through my needs, or to share my ah-ha! moment with you. Why does Jesus tell us to forgive each other? I would suggest that it is not to make the other person feel better, but to heal ourselves. As long as we hold on to our pain and the bitterness of unforgiveness, no healing can occur. When we forgive others we let go of the anger, the hurt, the bitterness and are ready to let God’s healing grace go to work. Being unforgiving is like sitting in a jail cell of our own making. No one else can let us out because we are holding the key!

Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve. – James 1:15-16

Forgiving does not always mean forgetting, but it does mean not holding on to our pain, and trying to love the other person. Who do you need to pray for?  Who do you need to forgive?

Tuesday, October 27, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

So many times, individuals’ beliefs on faith and life are simply a reflection of their family, their social or peer group, or church affiliation.

One of the most radical and challenging passages in the New Testament is Romans Chapter 12. And the most challenging is verse 2. “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…..” (CEB) I especially like the way the J. B. Phillips Translation, translates the first part of this verse. “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-make you so that your whole attitude of mind is changed”.

The world around us? Our family, our friends, our co-workers, even “the church” can squeeze us into a mold of thinking that is not consistent with growth. Spiritual growth, or growth as a whole, complete progressing, growing individual.

There are times we must allow God to re-make the way we think. To re-make the attitudes we take. To completely change our whole attitude and way of thinking.

As we look at growth, ask God to show you areas of your life where you have been allowing “the world around you to squeeze you into its mold.” Invite God into the areas where you need to break out of the mold of other’s influences and ideas, and ask Him to re-make you so that your whole attitude of mind is changed.

The CEB completes this verse by translating “so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.”

The faith journey is one of growth. Always growing, always maturing. One huge way we grow on the faith journey, is allowing God to mature us by changing the way we think, by re-making our whole attitude of mind.

When we allow God to re-make us, changing our attitude of mind, I believe, we grow in our faith journey, in our love for others, our love for God, our tolerance and understanding of others, and as we grow and mature we become happier and experience real joy in our faith journey as well as life journey.

Thursday, October 29, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

When Anita and I moved into our new home in 2007, one of the first things we did was to begin planting trees, shrubs and flowers. I remember well the labor of planting our first oak tree on July 4th in 100 degree heat. One of the selling points when we bought the tree was the promise of the eventual shade and its great height.

This past spring, after nearly 8 years, I notice the promised mighty oak was anything but mighty. It just wasn’t maturing! It’s height was not much greater than it was 2 even 3 years ago. The branches were green, but just not branching out as first promised or thought. I then begin to notice branches toward the bottom of the trunk that had been there year after year, green, but no more mature than the year before. I also noticed smaller branches that appeared dead.

It was then I got out my trusty tree loppers, and set to cutting away the dead branches, as well as branches which appeared green and healthy but had not matured over the past few years. When I finished, from the ground up, there was plenty of bare trunk. It was then Anita and I had an interesting conversation as to why I had cut away so many branches, and what we would do if I had killed the tree. All while I maintained my innocence, and the fact I knew what I was doing.

It did not take long until something amazing began to happen. The oak tree began to grow taller, the branches fuller, and greener! Hard to believe, here we are in October, and the oak tree is finally beginning to take on the characteristics of a mighty oak. It appears this tree, with what was stunted growth, has grown six, seven, eight, maybe even 10 feet taller. The branches are still green and branching out farther in all directions.

As I sit and look at this tree, I am reminded of the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel 15:1-2, “I am the vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit.” (CEB)

I find myself praying and asking God, what are the branches of my life that are dead and not producing good fruit, causing the tree of my life to not reach the full God-intended potential? What are the branches of my life which are green and appear healthy, yet they are not as healthy or productive as God intends? What are the branches of my life which are stunting my growth as a productive, progressive, Christ follower?

Allow me to encourage you to ask God to help you take an inventory, to inspect the tree of your life, your faith journey. Identify the branches which are dead, and nonproductive, even damaging to your faith journey. To identify those branches which may appear green and healthy, yet have something lacking, and are keeping you from reaching your full potential as a person, as a productive, progressive, Christ follower.

Together, we can all pray the prayer, Lord, remove from the tree of my life those dead branches, those branches which I allow others to see as green and healthy, yet need your pruning and cutting away. Trim away those areas of my life, which are stunting my growth, and keeping me from reaching my potential which you intend for me.

When we allow God to trim and prune us, it is then we begin to grow in our faith, our faith journey, and the branches of our life, our influence begin to branch out and touch and affect our world in a positive life giving, life changing way.

Saturday, October 31, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

“Failure is what makes me more ready to learn than anything else. In fact failure is itself a lesson. …… Once you admit that you don’t know, that you can’t know, you know something you previously refused to know. Everything is possible again when you have fought and struggled and been defeated, when you come to zero.” (Naked Spirituality Ch. 20 page 169, Brian McLaren)

There are two ways we can read the Bible. We may choose to read it with rose colored glasses, believing the Bible is an infallible book about infallible people who were the super saints of centuries ago. That our goal is somehow to attain the infallibility of these super saints.

Or, we may choose to read the Bible as “the living legacy of people who lived in the real world, a diary of complexities and perplexities survived and reflected upon. It’s the family album that carries the memories of ancestors who managed to keep their faith, hope, and love alive in a world that shocked them, rocked them, and mocked them.” (Naked Spirituality Ch. 20 page 171)

When we remove our rose colored glasses, we discover in the Bible, a collection of stories of people exactly like you and I. People who had questions, struggles, hardship, sorrow, discouragement, doubt, and failure. People who were anything but perfect, infallible super saints, but people who kept on going and growing in their faith journeys, regardless of the setbacks, hardship, discouragements and failures. Whether these life circumstances were of their own making or out of their control.

The Apostle Peter is a great example. He was impulsive. “Lord, it’s good we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Matt. 17:4). “Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant cutting of his right ear.” (John’s Gospel 18:10)

Peter had questions. “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?” (Matt. 18:21)

Peter failed, by denying he even knew Jesus, his teacher and his friend. (Mark 14:66-71)

And poor, poor Peter, like many of us, was slow to understand the questions and answer correctly when Jesus asked him not once but three times, “Peter, do you love me?” (John 21:15-19)

Impulsive, questions, failure, slow to understand, to really learn the lesson; sound familiar?

As we read the Bible, in the Acts of the Apostles, we find Peter, a leader, a preacher, a missionary, a great proclaimer of the Gospel of Jesus. This is the same Peter of the Gospels that was, impulsive, had questions, was slow to understand and even failed at one point in his faith journey.

I believe Peter had learned what we all learn, or can learn.

Failure, discouragement, questions, life’s tough places, serve as opportunities for growth, opportunities to learn, to move forward as an individual, as a follower of Jesus, as a traveler on a journey of faith.

Our failures need never be final, but rather serve as progressive steps toward growth and success in life and on our faith journey.

Peter serves as a shining example of growth and encouragement. And he penned these words of encouragement for growth. “….you must make every effort to add moral excellence to your faith; and to moral excellence, knowledge, and to knowledge, self-control, endurance, and to endurance godliness and to godliness, affection for others, and to affection for others, love….if these are yours and are growing in you, they’ll keep you from becoming inactive, and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” II Peter 1:5-8

Discouraged, have questions, doubts, sorrow, hardships, having a difficult time getting the point, or answering the questions? Maybe you have even experienced failure in life, or on your faith journey. Use these situations as stepping stones for growth. Allow our loving, and patient God to help you move forward growing stronger in life and in your faith.

Tuesday, November 3, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

When I was a child growing up in Florida, my siblings and I adored being in the water. We lived along the banks of a large river which fed into the Gulf of Mexico, so almost every day, my brother and I would take our small boat out on the water to let down blue crab traps, fish for catfish, and explore the million tiny water canals near our home. More than once we were sternly escorted home by annoyed-looking Coast Guard patrols because we were unaccompanied minors out on the water. (A fact which, I must argue, is neither illegal nor chargeable. Our parents, who trusted us enough to know we had life jackets stowed in the boat and wouldn’t likely allow ourselves to be washed out to sea, just laughed every time the Coast Guard grouchily towed us back to our dock.)

In the off season, when the tourists weren’t clogging up the springs, we would sometimes head down the coast a small trip to the Three Sisters Springs, one of the most densely populated manatee habitats on the planet. And there, in the crisp, clean water of the springs, I met one of my greatest loves in life – baby manatees. What’s that, you say? You didn’t realize manatees came in baby size? I assure you they do! Baby manatees are the most playful, joyous creatures on earth. If you swim with them, they will swoosh around you in the water, bump into you with their heads and “high five” you with their flippers. They will pull on your scuba gear and splash water down your snorkel, and stare at you in wonder with their heads cocked to the side like curious kittens. And they will do all this like the giant floating rocks that they appear to be. The world is a much better place because manatees come in baby form.

Every now then, when I get to feeling down or overwhelmed, I sometimes pull out pictures of the baby manatees because they give me hope and joy. Statistically speaking, the life of a baby manatee is destined to be difficult. Manatees are a highly endangered species who have no other natural predators besides humanity. Yet most manatees bear deep scars from the propellers of passing boats, and the loss of habitats and increases in pollution have left manatees very few safe places to be. The adorable baby manatees will likely grow up to meet difficult fates. But somehow, when I think about the joy baby manatees exhibit, I am reminded that we too are called to live with that kind of pure, unadulterated joy coursing through our lives. Yes, we too sometimes bear the deep scars of life, but we are called not to be defined by the scars. Even in adulthood, manatees are gentle, trusting, and non-threatening. The bear the scars, but the scars do not define them.

Do your scars define you? Have you allowed the wounds of life to pull the joy out of your world? If so, perhaps today is the day to take back your attitude and decide you will be a joyous, loving person in spite of the scars. Joy is the stuff a relationship with God is made of, and without it we become miserable people. My scientific brain understands how it was that manatees came into being, but my spirit will always believe that their purpose on this earth is to bring joy and a reminder that a gentle, gracious life lived undefined by the scars is one of the most powerful lessons we can ever live with our lives. May our lives also bear this gentle joy in spite of the scars.

Thursday, November 5, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

“I can’t do it!” she whispered for the fifth time.

“Yes, you can,” I coaxed, trying to muster up my most encouraging tone of voice. “You just need to close your eyes and jump.”

“I can’t!” she replied. “Even if I close my eyes, my brain still knows what I’m doing!”

I sighed. It was a scorching day, I had been in the sun for hours, and my patience was running thin. We were sitting on a platform at the top of a telephone poll, and I knew one way or another, the young woman dangling her feet off the edge in front of me was eventually going to have to come down.

I was a 19-year-old college student the summer I signed up to be a facilitator for the high ropes course at one of our conference camps, Camp Horizon near Arkansas City. Nearly every day, for three straight months that summer, I climbed up to the four foot square platform 30 feet off the ground, and helped climbers transition from crossing the balance beam to jumping off the platform to ride down the zip line. My job was to unhook them from the safety rope that protected them while they crossed the balance beam, and hook them into zip line before they sat down on the edge, pushed forward off the platform, and sailed off into the breeze to ride the zip line. Unhook, hook, jump, swish! Unhook, hook, jump, swish! It was exhausting work, but fun and exhilarating at the same time. By the end of the summer I was confident, tanned, and fearless.

Until we came to the last week of the summer season, that was. That week we had a group at the camp who were familiar with the facilities and felt they were experts at the ropes course. Most of the climbers that week arrived at my platform with a cocky attitude of careless disregard for safety or rules. By the time the last young woman of the day had climbed up, I was grumpy and irritable at having to yell at them to check their gear, listen to the rules, and quit rushing. The last thing I needed that afternoon was a climber who got stuck at the top and wouldn’t come down.

At first the young woman had seemed like she knew what she was doing. As I checked her gear and hooked her into the zip line, however, I could feel the fear flooding from her body. Her arms and legs were shaking and she was clinging on to me as though she feared she was going to fall to her death. “Are you alright?” I asked her. “Is this your first time? It’s perfectly safe and you can’t get hurt. The ropes won’t let you fall.”

“Oh no, I’ve done this dozens of times before,” she replied, “I love this zip line. It’s just that even when it’s something I love doing, the part where I have to jump off the platform still makes me afraid.” I was somewhat stunned by this statement. Here was a woman who knew exactly what she was doing, had done it many times before, and knew she would love the zip line immensely once she let go, but who still couldn’t let go of the platform to take the plunge. Finally, after many false starts and an eventual physical nudge, the woman let go and allowed herself to fall forward onto the zip line. She plunged through the air and flew across the zip line course, laughing and smiling from ear to ear.

Later that night, I pondered the woman’s reaction as I thought about the day. Fear had held her back from doing something she loved, even though she knew there was joy and freedom to be had on the other side. Is fear holding you back in some part of your life? Have you paused on the edge of something that could be great, if only you would take the plunge? Even though we sometimes think of our limitations as external, in reality we often only limited by our own fears. What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Jesus spent a lot of his time guiding the disciples past their fear. He invited them into a bold relationship with their lives, taking courageous risks and moving through their lives with confidence. Jesus knew we limit ourselves by our fear and called us to move beyond it. But if we are truly trusting disciples, we know that where God calls us to go, God will also give us what we need to get there. So today, as you ponder those things in your life you might be holding back from because of fear, I invite you to imagine the guiding hand of Jesus supporting your back as you hear his voice whispering, “Just close your eyes and jump!”

Saturday, November 7, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

This week we have been talking about the topic of finding and embracing the things about which you are passionate and excited. Research tells us that there are two major things in life which hold us back from taking bold risks or engaging in activities which are outside of our comfort zone: fear of the future and guilt about the past. While both of these are important, it is my personal belief that guilt is often the greatest weight we carry in our lives, and the one area which holds us back more than anything.

I believe that most of us carry far more guilt around in our lives than we ever should. Granted, some amount of guilt can be useful and helps keep us humble and compassionate. (We have a word for people who never experience any guilt for their behaviors or actions: narcissists.) But I believe for most of us, we have no difficulty arriving at plenty of guilt in which to submerge ourselves in the backs of our minds.

“Why did I say that? I should have just kept my mouth shut.”

“I shouldn’t have done that. I wish I could turn back time and make a different choice.”

“I should spend more time with my family / stick to a healthier diet / worry less.”

We can drive ourselves crazy with all of the “shoulds” we “should” be doing. At the end of the day, however, very few of those statements help us to become better people. Although guilt can help us stay honest about our behaviors, it often simply sucks the life out of us rather than helping us to find happiness or joy.

The same is true for finding and feeding our passions in life. I have come across many people in my ministry years who hold an implicit belief that they should not be allowed to be happy or spend time doing things with make them feel fully alive out of a guilt that they are somehow “cheating” at life. It is almost as though we believe our lives are intended to be hard and filled with drudgery and the idea of allowing ourselves to be fulfilled, joyous, and excited about life is unfair to those whose lives are harder.

I don’t think misery and drudgery was ever God’s intent for us though. Consider the witness of the scriptures: “…you are fearfully and wonderfully made…,” “…I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly…,” “…the prospect of the righteous is joy…” Over and over again, the Bible calls us to a joy-filled, passionate life. There is no guilt in following that which God intended us to do – the things that really bring us alive – because in honoring those parts of ourselves, we also honor God.

For many of us, Saturday is a day off (not necessarily a less-busy day, but a day that includes a change of pace). Perhaps you will have an opportunity today to do something which brings you true joy. Maybe you will feed geese or watch a sunset or cuddle a baby. Perhaps you will get lost in a good book, feel your blood pumping with exercise, or try a new food. Have a cup of good coffee with a great friend. Spend some time in quiet solace. Pray. It doesn’t really matter the substance of what you do to feed your spirit; the important point is that you do it, and that you free yourself from the guilt you may feel for setting aside the time to do those things. Your spirit needs to be fed the food of pure joy, and when you do that, you honor the Creator who blessed you with that spirit in the first place.

Tuesday, November 10, Written by Rev. Kent Melcher

The Holy Spirit and Generosity

“. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23a

If any of us ever has any doubt about who we are called to be as the people of God and followers of Jesus Christ, this verse serves as a succinct reminder. It is to the point . . . and the point is that these are virtues that God expects of God’s people.

The verse also clearly reminds us that living these virtues is “not our own doing.” As the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the church in Ephesus, gracious living “is a gift of God.” In other words, because we are all sinful human beings, we cannot “will ourselves” to “do good.” We can only do good when we are “living in the Spirit.”

Let me illustrate.

When I was in seminary, we learned that Julie was going to have our third child. It was an “unexpected” blessing.

I was taking a full load of classes, and writing what are called “credos,” which are major statements of personal beliefs based on my studies and my work in my student “setting for ministry” (Asbury UMC in Prairie Village). The credos were to serve as the basis for a major part of my graduation requirements.

Besides the stressful seminary requirements, and the responsibilities of my church job, I was worried about how we would pay for the birth of our child. We had no maternity insurance, and my twenty-hour-per-week student salary was barely paying our bills.

Under all that stress, my work at the church suffered. The Senior Pastor called me into his office and informed me that I was failing in my obligations to the congregation and the staff. With that, the stress burst out of me in sobs. Through my weeping, I told him what was going on. He was unaware of our financial predicament or the credo deadlines. Immediately, his attitude changed from “boss” to “pastor.” He told me to take the rest of the week off, including the following Sunday.

When I came back to work on Monday, he called me into his office again. My anxiety level rose, but as I walked through the door he was smiling. He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a sealed envelope. He told me to open it.

Inside was a check from the church to pay the hospital and doctor bills. And there was plenty left over!

He told me that on Sunday he had shared our predicament with the congregation, and then took a “love offering” for my family. It was a very generous gift, financially. More importantly, it was a great gift of his graceful response to my need.

That event generated an important part of what I believe: to “live in the Spirit” is to recognize the urgings of the Spirit and to respond faithfully.

Perhaps at times you feel an impulse to give generously to someone who could benefit from your financial help.

Or perhaps you know that someone is going through a difficult time, and from your own experience you feel that person could benefit from your support and encouragement.

Or perhaps you recognize that the mission of the church could be enhanced by a generous gift of your money, time, talents, and leadership.

The impulse you feel comes from the Holy Spirit’s urging you to live out the virtue of generosity. What do you do? How do you respond?

Thursday, November 12, Written by Rev. Kent Melcher

Gratitude and Generosity

“Praise the Lord, all you nations! Extol him all you peoples! For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord!” Psalm 117

Again and again, the writers of the Hebrew bible proclaim God’s “steadfast love.” The Hebrew word is “chesed’ (pronounced hesed), which is also sometimes translated “loving-kindness.” The New Testament equivalent is “grace.”

One may think of grace and steadfast love by remembering that God knows we are sinners, but God loves us anyway. As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

That verse may conflict with what some of us learned as a child from parents, in Sunday school, and from our experiences in life. A recent Facebook post sums up the contradicting viewpoints: “Religion says God will love us if we change. The gospel says God’s love changes us.”

Believing the gospel does change us. When God’s grace penetrates our souls, we are transformed. When we finally comprehend God’s never-ending love as a free gift and not something we earn by being “good,” suddenly gratitude becomes our attitude.

When I served as pastor at Shawnee Heights UMC, the church and parsonage were struck by a small (thankfully) tornado. Julie and I had gone to bed late, about 11:45 p.m. I was asleep at 12:15 a.m. when I heard her scream, “I heard an explosion!”

Instantly, I realized the wind was howling and “stuff” was hitting the large windows above our bed. We both jumped out of bed to grab the kids to go to the basement. Before we could get out of the bedroom, the windows exploded into the room, glass flying, and drapes and aluminum blinds whipping in the wind! The windows in the girls’ bedroom also exploded into the room, and broken glass was everywhere!

Then, just as quickly as it struck, the tornado passed.

Immediately, I called the Trustees’ chairman and the Staff-Parish chairman. In a matter of minutes twenty-five people arrived at the parsonage to clean up the mess inside and to board up the broken windows on the outside. The next morning, more people arrived to gather the broken limbs and the great chunks of roofing from the building across the street. (The roof coming off that building was the explosion Julie heard, and the “stuff” hitting our windows was tar and rocks and sheeting from that roof.)

That week, I learned first-hand what post-traumatic stress can do to one’s emotional and physical energy.

But as I prepared Sunday’s sermon, I also learned the meaning of gratitude. I recognized the fact that none of us was seriously injured. It also dawned on me that our family had experienced the blessing of caring people who were willing to get up in the middle of the night to come to our rescue. That realization caused me to ponder the question of what other people do who do not have a community of faith to help them in a time of distress.

I was grateful from the bottom of my heart.

Christian generosity arises primarily from gratitude for God’s grace, which has blessed us beyond anything we could possibly hope for.

Generosity arises also from compassion. More about that in the next article.

Saturday, November 14, Written by Rev. Kent Melcher

Compassion and Generosity

“Seeing the crowds, Jesus had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:36

Throughout the Gospels, the writers illustrate the compassion of Jesus. Theologians since the time of Jesus have pointed to compassion as foundational for us to understand who Jesus was, and is. More than that, Jesus reveals the very nature of God. Were it not for the compassion of God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, there would be no history of God’s everlasting love for humanity: there would be no “saving grace.”

The original language of the New Testament, Greek, had no equivalent word for the English word “compassion.” To express this trait of Jesus, the writers of the Gospels had to invent a word. The word they used was a fusion of the Greek “sym,” meaning “with,” and “patheos,” meaning “feeling.” Compassion is “sympathy,” a “feeling with” someone in his or her distress.

Thinking of people you know, you may be aware that some of your friends and family are blessed with an innate sensibility of compassion. The tragedies, struggles, heartbreaks, grief, and pain of others touch them deeply. Because they are acutely aware of the depth of human emotions of others, their tears may flow at the very mention of someone’s troubles.

Others you know may not exhibit such an obvious “feeling with.” For whatever reason, they seem insulated from the troubles others may feel.

While we may note the difference between the two, it is not our place to judge between them. We may, however, ponder whether compassion is innate for some people, while for others “feeling with” must be learned.

For example, it appears that some children are born with a tenderness that we see in their interactions with other children and pets, and with nature. Other children seem to be whirlwinds of activity, flying through their days with much less awareness of the feelings of others. Neither one is “right” or “wrong.” They simply are the way they are.

To be faithful followers of Jesus, his disciples need to emulate him. For some of us, that means we must learn how to exhibit compassion. Part of the learning requires us to stop, as Jesus did from time to time, and reconnect with the spiritual side of life. We need to learn how to set aside our agendas, our tasks, our “busy-ness,” count our many blessings, and consider how better to interact with others and the world in which we live.

Mosaic law can be considered “instructions in holiness.” For those who need to learn compassion there are passages like this:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyards bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:9-10

Clearly the Hebrew bible reveals that God expects people to exhibit compassion for the poor, the widow and orphan, and the “alien.” This verse establishes a practice among the people of God for enacting compassion, for making it a reality, even if and when we do not feel compassion.

For some of us who may not have been blessed with the innate sensibility of compassion, God knows we need to practice disciplines that help us to live out God’s intention for the human community. And by practicing those disciplines, we may, in time, begin to “feel with” those who are in need.

To be faithful to Jesus Christ, we must practice compassion. The operative word there is practice. Disciplines help us fulfill the calling we have as followers of Jesus and give us practical ways to live out our calling.

Those disciplines may also help us to become those who “feel with” others in their distress.

Tuesday, November 17, Written by Rev. Rick Saylor

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” – James 1:27

My parents taught me about compassion. Growing up in my home they often modeled and extended compassion and hospitality to others. Their kitchen table was a place where many friends, neighbors, and fellow church members sat sharing meals, coffee, dessert, and good conversation. It was my first experience of “hospitality.”

But I remember a day my father clearly taught me that showing compassion was part of what it meant to be a Christian. It was a snowy December Saturday and our home needed a fresh supply of coal in the coal bin for our furnace. In truth, I never looked forward to my Dad’s command, “Come on, Rick, we need to go get a load of coal,” for it meant an afternoon of hard work, shoveling the coal from the truck into the bin. Even now, I can hear and feel the rhythm of shovel by shovel in tandem with each other working the load. The good part of the hard work was having three hours alone with my Dad to talk. But this particular December Saturday was to be different. As we finished our work, Dad said to me, “We need to go get another load of coal and take it to Minnie.” You see, Minnie Snyder was an older widow in our church who struggled to get by.

I reluctantly went along to unload yet another truck of coal in her home’s coal bin. But amidst the tiring, dirty work and the cold and snow flurries, I remember my Dad’s answer when I said, “Dad, why are we doing this?” He said, “Minnie is a poor widow and a member of our church and caring for her in this way is part of what it means to be a Christian.” Minnie is long gone and my Dad joined her in our Eternal home in September. But I will always remember when I learned that doing acts of compassion towards others is part of what it means to be a Christian.

What are your childhood experiences that taught you about doing acts of compassion? Take a moment to reflect and give thanks to God for those who modeled compassion in your life!

Thursday, November 19, Written by Rev. Rick Saylor

“And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” – 1 Thessalonians 3:12

The letter of Thessalonians is said to be the oldest writing in our New Testament, written even before the Gospels. I find it interesting how often these earliest writings focus on themes regarding our relationships. The verse noted above encourages us to increase our love for one another. What exactly does that mean? And how do we do that?

For me one of the blessings of being a United Methodist pastor is that we have opportunities to make many relationships. As I have moved from one appointment to another my circle of relationships has grown larger as more and more people leave a mark in my heart. It’s a wonderful gift.

Maybe for you one way to “increase in love” is to increase the number of your relationships. Indeed, we all have a current circle of relationships that are dear to us, and we need to nurture and enjoy these relationships. At the same time we also have opportunities to create new friendships. This is especially true in our Countryside community of faith. We are a growing, diverse, and welcoming community of faith. At each Sunday morning worship service we take time to greet one another. I believe it’s an important part of our worship. It’s a wonderful time for you to meet and greet new friends in the faith, for by doing so, you “increase in love.” So take the “1 plus 1” challenge the next Sunday you are in worship. At the greeting time, greet one current friend and make a new one. It’s a “1 plus 1” time of increasing and abounding in love.

Saturday, November 21, Written by Rev. Rick Saylor

Jesus once said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Modern day commentators have also said, “It’s also a whole lot easier.” Why is it some of us find it easier to give care and compassion than receive it? I often ask myself that when I struggle with “receiving care.” For in truth, I do at times. And why?

Maybe it’s because I see it as a sign of weakness to receive care. Or maybe because of an image as pastor that I need to have my act together and always be a giver, not a receiver. Or maybe it’s because I’m afraid to be vulnerable in simply, powerfully receiving the love and care of others. But I’m learning and growing.

The care so many of you have given to Janet and me regarding our journey with our parents – my Dad’s death and our moms’ chronic health issues – has been overwhelming. It has strengthened and comforted us on this journey. It has taught me to “receive the love” of our Countryside community of faith – with no “mental strings attached” on my part. Your giving has made me a better receiver. And isn’t that how it is with a lot of us!

Tuesday, November 24, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

I love the Psalms!! The Book of Psalms, is a book of thanksgiving and praise. A book full of thanksgiving and praise written in various circumstances of life. As you search the Psalms, you will find words of praise and thanksgiving when the sun is shining and all is bright and beautiful, as well as dark and uncertain. Psalms of thanksgiving when surrounded by enemies with the threat of defeat. Thanksgiving in good health and in adverse health, thanksgiving in prosperity as well as poverty. Thanksgiving in time of doubt and countless questions. Thanksgiving when walking through the green pastures of living, as well as when walking through the darkest valleys of life. And even thanksgiving during times of guilt, anguish, and correction of personal sin and failure.

I believe the Psalmist were able write these exultations of thanksgiving and praise in every circumstance of life, because they were willing to search and were able to see God and his provision in every circumstance of their lives. They were able to see God as “ever present” regardless of where they were at a particular moment. They were able to see God’s mercy, compassion, and faithfulness in every circumstance of human existence.

Not only were they able to see God in every circumstance and give him thanksgiving and praise, moreover, they were able to see God as they needed to see him and experience him as they needed to experience him during the various circumstances of life. They were able to see him as king, leader, defender, provider, comforter, a giver of strength, a shelter to run to as a child would run to find shelter in the open arms of a loving parent. They were able to see and experience him as forgiver, and restorer of the God-man relationship. These are but a few examples of how these ancient givers of thanksgiving and praise were able to see and experience God, and as a result give thanksgiving and praise regardless of the circumstance.

How about you? In what circumstance do you need to see our loving God and Father (Parent)? How do you need to experience him at this particular moment in your life?

As we enter this week in which the focus is to be on thanksgiving; regardless where you are in life, or on your spiritual journey; I invite you to take a few moments each day and explore the Psalms. Explore and find God where you are, experience him in whatever way you need to experience him in whatever circumstance you are in.

“Give thanks in every situation…” (CEB) “Be thankful, whatever the circumstances may be…” (J.B. Phillips Translation) I Thessalonians 5:18

Thursday, November 26, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

“Thanks means waking up to the presents of God, waking up to the abundant gifts of life with which we have already been blessed.” – Brian McLaren, chapter 6, “Naked Spirituality.”

In chapter six of his book, Naked Spirituality, Brian McLaren recounts a conversation with a close friend. The friend ask how much money he would give to keep his eyesight if he knew he were going blind. Of course his reply was, everything. From there the line of questioning included the ability to walk, the ability to hear, his mental health, his intellect. At the end of the questioning his friend pointed out these were priceless blessings which Brian already possessed.

As I read these words, I thought of all the things I (we) already possess, things we carry with us every moment of every day yet we take them for granted and rarely if ever stop to give our Heavenly Father, Creator, and Provider thanks.

It was then I began to practice a prayer of thanksgiving, one that I practice on a set day of each week. Father, thank you for the heart that beats within my chest. For the air which fills my lungs, for the life giving red liquid that flows through my veins, thank you! For the ability to see, to hear, to speak, to smell, to taste; thank you. For the ability to touch and be touched, to feel without and to feel emotion within. For hands and arms which I can use, for legs and feet that give me the ability to move from place to place, for the ability to think, reason and process my thoughts; thank you! For all these blessings, and so many others, often taken for granted I give you thanks.

On this day that is set aside by our culture to “give thanks,” may we truly move our attention away from the feasting and festivities which have nothing what so ever to do with giving thanks, and concentrate on what the spirit of thanksgiving is. I believe the giving of thanks is a daily happening; beginning with those things so easily taken for granted. Our basic gifts of life and the complexity of our physical and mental capacities. The beauty of a sunrise, or a sunset. The music of birds singing, the beauty of the changing of the seasons, the smile of a baby, the hug from a child, a hug and kiss from our spouse. So many basic beautiful gifts of life we possess, yet too many times take for granted and fail to give thanks for.

I have discovered, when I begin to be thankful for the “basic” things, the ‘’taken for granted” things, all the other blessings and gifts of life seem so much greater and enjoyable.

Take inventory. What are the things which maybe you have been taking for granted, yet are priceless and worthy of the greatest of thanksgiving and praise? Begin your thanksgiving celebration here, at the taken for granted things. The “presents” of God.

Come into the “presence” of God with thanksgiving for the “presents” of God.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:23 (NRSV)

Saturday, November 28, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

“I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it is always a prayer full of joy.” Philippians 1:4 (CEB)

Throughout the writings of Apostle Paul, giving thanks, or the theme of thanksgiving rings over and over. One thing that jumps out of the pages of these ancient text, is that Paul was not only a thankful man, but he was thankful for people. Paul begins his writing to the community of faith at Philippi, by letting them know how thankful he is to God for them, and letting them know how thankful he is to them. This community of Christ followers had supported Paul with their time, their energies, and their finances.

As I read of Paul’s thankfulness for people I am reminded of how thankful I am for people that are in my life and touch my life in a special way on a regular basis.

Just as we often take God’s basic blessings for granted (Reference Spirit Note for Thursday Nov. 26th), I believe we too often take one of our greatest blessings for granted by never giving thanks for them or even saying a sincere thank you to them. The blessing of PEOPLE!!!

We all have those special people in our lives, that do those special little things, or even big things to enhance our life and living, yet we so often let time go by without ever thanking God for them, let alone just giving a sincere thank you to them personally.

Many of those who touch our lives in positive, life changing ways, to us are only a face and many times nameless. Maybe it is time to take a few moments and say a prayer of thanksgiving for them, and ask a special blessing for them. I believe it would be great if we go to those nameless people, maybe step out of our comfort zone, introduce ourselves, and say thank you for____________. Let them know how thankful you are to them for the way they enhance your life, and for the positive difference they have made and make.

Who are the people for whom you are thankful? Those who have a name, those we know in a special way, as we well as those who bless us and touch us yet are nameless?

Tuesday, December 1, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

A number of years ago I had a conversation with a woman who was experiencing a period of exceedingly great trial and difficulty in her life. I listened as she shared with me the painful realities of what had happened to her and the impossible choices she was facing for the future. She had no good options from which to choose. Life seemed to stretch in front of her in an endlessly bleak abyss out of which no joy could be found.

After she had shared for a while, I asked if she was angry about what had happened to her – angry at God, others, or herself. It seemed to me she couldn’t possibly not be angry at the unfairness of her circumstances. “Don’t you feel,” I asked, “that you have a right to be angry?” “I was angry,” she replied, “and then I just became hopeless.” She paused for a moment and I watched her eyes fill with tears. When she spoke again her voice was barely above a whisper. “Hopeless,” she said, “is so much worse than angry.”

I often think about that woman’s words when I sit with people in times of grief and loss. We talk about the person who died or the marriage which just ended or the job which fell through, and what the future will look like now that their world has changed. Often their words tell me they are angry, but their eyes tell me they are hopeless. Anger is a fiery emotion, spurring the person to action or change or growth. Sometimes people find great strength and determination from being angry. Hopelessness, on the other hand, looks beaten down, numb, and paralyzing. Hopelessness sucks the life out of people and leaves them wondering what good could possibly still exist in the world. Hopeless is so much worse than angry.

One of the greatest promises I find in scripture is that God promises us hope when we can find no hope on our own. Sometimes the world becomes such an overwhelmingly difficult place that we simply cannot find hope from within ourselves. It is then, the scripture says, that we learn what it is like to truly rely upon God for our hope. “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes;” the scripture promises us, “and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

It is not simply a future hope God promises to us, however, but a present hope, a presence we cannot fathom, new beginnings we can’t even imagine. We believe in the God of unimaginable possibilities, which is a really good thing, because sometimes the limits of our own imagination keep us pinned into a mediocre existence. Sometimes it takes hopeless moments for us to remember that hope – real, genuine, Christ-like hope – doesn’t originate within ourselves. It comes from the tear-drying, sorrow-healing, pain-comforting love of a God bigger than all the finite reaches of our minds. Hopelessness never gets the final word when we trust in God’s infinite promises.

Six months or so after my conversation with the woman who was in the midst of trials, I ran into her again and asked how she was doing. She smiled and assured me life was much better. She must have noticed my surprised reaction because she quickly explained that her actual circumstances had not changed. She was still facing difficulties and making hard choices. “What changed,” she explained, “was my outlook. I realized I had no more hope in life. Every day I woke up and struggled to find a reason to even get out of bed. And then one day I realized I didn’t want to live like that anymore. I was tired of being down and hopeless, and it made me mad that I was choosing to let my circumstance define me. Now every day, when I wake up, I tell myself I will choose to find at least one place in my life where God is teaching me something or showing me something new. Life is still hard, but it’s amazing how changing my perspective about God’s work in my life can change so many other parts of life.”

She paused, then smiled again. “It turns out,” she said, “that if I can conquer feeling hopeless, I can conquer anything.”

Thursday, December 3, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

Down the street from where I live is a house that on the outside looks very similar to ours. It has the same general style and color scheme, and for ten months out of the year, you wouldn’t notice anything unusual about it if you drove through our neighborhood. Starting in October, however, our neighbors’ house begins its annual transformation into what we refer to as, “The Griswold House.”

My family and I love The Griswold House. In early October, they begin to add Halloween decorations, until the entire neighborhood is glowing with their giant orange pumpkins, howling with witches, and thrilling anyone who dares walk near their interactive graveyard scene. When the Halloween season ends, The Griswold House takes a brief hiatus before beginning their Christmas extravaganza sometime around Thanksgiving. As the season wears on, they add inflatable scenes, stars, lights, sounds, and characters. Snowmen wave, Santas dart here and there on their lawn, and traffic slows as people driving by roll down their windows to hear the carols wafting through the air. The Griswold House isn’t just a house – it’s an experience.

The only problem with their display, however, is that it makes all the houses near it seem insignificant in comparison. My husband loves to put up Christmas lights, and the lights at our house are, in my opinion, very beautiful and meaningful. In comparison to the Griswold’s, however, they seem to pale in comparison. If the cars driving down our street pass The Griswold House first, they probably don’t even notice our lights. And if we ourselves were to stand in the driveway and compare our house to the house down the street, it would be easy to feel one-upped in the decorating game.

All of that is a matter of perspective, though, because I think our lights are beautiful. I love the way they glow through our front window and turn the blinds different colors. It brings me joy when I watch my son beg every night to be allowed to plug them in, and then rush outside to check on them. I love the studious dedication my husband puts into getting them up every year, and how festive it feels to come home to bright lights on the house when I’ve been at an evening meeting and don’t get home until after dark. Our lights are small but mighty in my eyes.

Every year when I drive past The Griswold House, I am reminded that so much of hopefulness in life starts with where we fix our gaze. If we are constantly comparing ourselves to others, they will always seem to have better ______ (fill in the blank: homes/marriages/families/finances/spirituality/jobs/Christmas lights). If we stand in our own driveway and stare at the lights of others, ours will feel small and insignificant, and we will find ourselves feeling hopeless that we will ever measure up. Making comparisons with others in life will almost always prove to be an exercise in discouragement and frustration. It can be very tempting, but it almost always leads to grief.

Instead, the scripture calls us to focus on deep appreciation of that which already exists in our lives, and to desire to find joy in the gifts of God. “Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above,” says the writer of James, “and these gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.” Our gifts are each unique to us, molding our lives into the individual image of God which exists within us and within our lives. If we choose to fix our gaze upon that which God has uniquely poured into each of our lives, we find hope in the blessings and promises God has made with each of us. There is no need for comparison with others when we find joy and strength in our own individual relationship with God.

My son trick-or-treated at The Griswold House this year, as he often does. As usual, the witch robot on the front steps scared/thrilled him, and he laughed at the zombies and spooky music. As he made his way up the steps to ring the doorbell, I found myself looking at all of the amazing decorations and the care and skill with which they had been placed around the lawn. “I could never do any of this,” I pondered to myself. Just then I noticed the sweet lady who had answered the door and handed my son candy. She was looking down at my little “ghost” and smiling. “You have an adorable son,” she said. “Thank you,” I replied, and thought to myself, and thank you for the reminder to fix my gaze in the right direction.

Saturday, December 5, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

A couple of years ago, I suddenly came to the unsettling realization that I had actually achieved “growing up.” It wasn’t that I had finished learning things (no one ever does) or even that I had lost my childhood free spirit (because, let’s be honest, I’m never likely to “grow up” in the responsibility sense), it was just that I had somehow inexplicably achieved all of the grownup checklist items. Finished school – check. Settled into a job – check. Spending Saturday mornings cleaning clogs out of the bathroom sink drain – check. I suddenly wasn’t counting down to real life beginning anymore. I had arrived.

I was horrified.

Don’t get me wrong – I worked long and hard to achieve those milestones. I was glad to be past the chaotic young adult years when you move constantly every six months and bounce around with no direction in life. I liked being done with school. I liked being settled into my awesome job. I liked… Well, OK, I didn’t really like cleaning out the bathroom sink drain on Saturday mornings, but at least I liked having a bathroom sink in the first place. I was quite happy with my life, but somehow it felt incomplete. I felt… restless. Unfulfilled. Missing something.

At first I couldn’t really identify why I felt this way. I considered whether I was somehow unhappy with my life in general. No, I concluded, I was very content. I looked into whether I was having a quarter-life crisis. No, I thought to myself, I’m not questioning my direction. What was wrong with me?

And then one day I read these words from Ephesians 4: “[God’s] purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. As a result, we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part.”

Aha, here was my answer. The piece I was missing in my life was the hope of what comes next. For all my life up until that point, I had always had an obvious “next step” on the horizon. Graduate, go to school, finish school, get a job, etc. Now, for the first time in my life, I didn’t have something looming ahead of me to be accomplished. And I began to realize that the real work of “growing up” had just begun, because the hope of who God was calling me to be was a work that was only in its infancy in my life and would continue to develop on throughout all my years in this world.

I realized that the external milestones and achievements in our lives are actually much easier to do than the internal ones. Can you pinpoint the day you got your first job? Bought a house? Retired? Those are easy dates to remember. But what about the day you became a compassionate person? Can you remember when you became humble? Finally understood forgiveness? Truly started to live selflessly? Those milestones are much harder to pinpoint, and my guess would be they are still being cultivated in most of our lives. We have hope for the future because we believe in the God of sanctifying grace – that is, God is still leading us on the journey of growing and changing, and we will continue that crazy road trip for as many more trips around the sun as we are destined to enjoy.

Since that realization in my life, I have become a big believer that all of us need something in our life to look forward to, always. We always need to have something on the horizon which brings us joy to even think about, because those thoughts are what keep us going on days that seem long or difficult. But whether that future treat be something as small as the next day off or as big as a trip around the world, we need also remember that the biggest and most important milestones are awaiting us in the journey of faith, patiently waiting for God to reveal them in our hearts.

Happy growing!

Tuesday, December 8, Written by Rev. Rick Saylor

“I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” – Philemon 7

Through the years I have received great joy by spending Sunday morning with a community of faith. I have done so for nearly 40 years as pastor. The smiles, heartfelt greetings and handshakes create a delightful experience that warms my soul, anchors my faith and energizes my love. And sharing worship together lifts my spirit in a way that can’t be fully described.

Joy is experienced best in community. Yes we can experience joy individually and privately, but it is deepened and energized with and among others. Last Sunday we heard a scripture that tells of the great joy Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) and Mary (the mother of Jesus) shared with each other when they spent time together – 3 months time according to scripture (Luke 1:56).

The message for us: spending time in a community of faith produces joy. Especially when we share with each other who we are, how we are, and where we are. As the scripture noted above from Philemon states: it is refreshing!

I give thanks for our Countryside community of faith that I have opportunity to connect with each Sunday. You refresh my love and joy! I trust you can say the same as you participate in Sunday mornings at Countryside.

Thursday, December 10, Written by Rev. Rick Saylor

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”

Did you ever notice the tense of the verb in this Christmas hymn? It doesn’t read, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.” Nor does it say, “Joy to the world, the Lord will come.” It says “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” Right now, present tense, today. The Lord comes to us, to our world – this month.

That has me asking a question: Will I see where the Lord is coming this month in December?

Is it in new life in a relationship?

Is it a fresh “zap” of inspiration in the middle of your week?

Is it in a growing world consciousness in the midst of daily news?

We as a nation are struggling with difficult issues this month: again another mass shooting, how to respond and not react to terrorism, what about showing hospitality to refugees! I wonder if “the Lord is come” as fresh ideas, emerging consciousness and risky faith convictions. I wonder if this December our joy can be energized by hope in the promises of Christ. And to belief that the Spirit of God is truly present and at work in our world – beyond the headlines.

Next time you sing “Joy to the World” pay attention to what tense you sing the second line!

Saturday, December 12, Written by Rev. Rick Saylor

“To sing is to pray twice.”

I like these words. It reminds me of the multi-dimensional power of music. Singing is an emotional experience. It also is an affirming experience. Singing liberates the deepest longings, joys and griefs that may be captured in our hearts. Singing is our spirit communicating with God’s spirit.

I always have had trouble dividing music into “sacred music” and “secular music.” All music in a way is sacred as it springs from our heart and spirit! So this week, enjoy listening to music. Sing along, hum along, tap your foot (unless you are driving your car) and let yourself be transported beyond your ordinary daily life to a place where music leads you.

How about this week as you hear a Christmas song, hum along with it. Even in the mall, like I did! People will notice you are praying! 🙂

Tuesday, December 15, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through! They are renewed every morning, great is your faithfulness.” – Lamentations 3:22-23 (CEB)

Whenever I read the words of this beautiful scripture, I am reminded of the words of my favorite hymn. “Great is thy faithfulness O God my Father, There is no shadow of turning with thee; Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not; As thou hast been thou forever wilt be. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; All I have needed thy hand hath provided; Great is thy faithfulness Lord unto me!”

Wow! The faithfulness of God! Think about it, God’s faithfulness, like His love is never ending, renewed every morning. His faithfulness is unconditional not depending on circumstance, or mood. And His faithfulness is extended to all His creation and all humanity.

Faithfulness according to Merriam –Webster definition is “steadfast in affection or allegiance, loyal, firm in adherence to promises or observances of duty. Given with strong assurance: binding, a faithful promise.”

When I think of God’s faithfulness in his love, mercies, compassions, and promises to me (us). I have to ask myself, how is my faithfulness? My faithfulness in my love for God and others? My faithfulness in my compassion and mercy to others. My faithfulness in my promises to God, and others?

Is my faithfulness something I turn on and off? Is my faithfulness unconditional not dependent on circumstances or mood? Is my faithfulness extended to all?

If I (we) are going to fully enjoy, appreciate, bask in the wonder of God our Father (Parent) love, then we must also be exercising faithfulness in my (our) own lives. Faithfulness to God as well as others, yes even those outside of our family or circle of influence. Faithfulness that is never ending, faithfulness that is unconditional, faithfulness that is extended to all.

During this season of giving, the greatest gift we can receive is a new and fresh awareness of God’s faithfulness to us. The greatest gift we can give is our faithfulness to God, and to others.

Thursday, December 17, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

A favorite Christmas story for many is Dr. Seuss’ “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” We all know the story of the evil, bitter, nasty Grinch high above the little village of Who Ville. Oh how he hated Christmas! And even more how he despised and hated the people of Who Ville. As the story goes, he devises a plan to rid his world of Christmas, and in the process take away the Who’s joy, peace and celebration of life and Christmas. That nasty Grinch, by cover of night, sweeps into Who Ville, and steals away all the lights, decorations, gifts, and preparations for their celebration of Christmas. He then sweeps back up into his mountain cave to watch all the fear, and crying of the Who’s. But what happens next is an eye opening, life changing surprise for Mr. Grinch.

Instead of cowering in fear and intimidation, instead of searching for the person or persons responsible, instead of forming a committee to discuss how to get even, instead of waiting for the mayor of Who Ville to say something to provide comfort and hope, and promises of retribution, the Who’s do something amazing! They gather together, in the town square, join hands and begin to sing louder and more beautiful than ever, Welcome Christmas! Welcome Christmas Day!

The people of Who Ville were faithful to their long anticipated celebration of Christmas. They didn’t need the presents, the lights and trees, no, their Christmas, their joy, their peace, their courage was within each and every one of them.

We are living in a time, when each day, outside forces and circumstances arise that many allow to steal away the joy, peace, love and celebration of this very special season. Thoughts of celebration are replaced with thoughts of fear, dismay, hopelessness, anger, prejudice and retribution.

Paul in writing to Timothy, II Timothy 1:7 gives these words of encouragement to not only Timothy, but to us, right here, right now, in 2015. “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” (NLT)

Because our Father (Parent) God, in his faithfulness to us, has given each of us a spirit or attitude of courage, love, power, and self-discipline, we do not have to cave to the pressures, attitudes and rhetoric of the day.

We can with great courage, square our shoulders, put a smile on our face, and be faithful to the Christ of Christmas and his teachings. We can be faithful, in our courage, in our love for all, in our acceptance of all peoples, in our compassion and in our mercy and forgiveness, and with the power of the Spirit celebrate! Welcome Christmas! Welcome Christmas Day!

As the story goes, when Mr. Grinch saw and heard the sights and celebration of the people of Who Ville, his heart grew three sizes and he discovered the true meaning of Christmas.

If we will remain faithful, to our God given spirit or attitude of courage, love, peace and hope, and celebrate each day the beauty of Christ in the world and in our lives; how many Grinch’s in our individual worlds, will see and hear and their heart will grow three sizes? They will discover for the first time the courage, love, joy, and peace of Christmas, of the Christ of Christmas.

Saturday, December 19, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

The Old Testament Book of Ruth, begins with a narrative of a family from Judah. A Jewish family, Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons Maholn and Chilion. Due to a time of drought, famine and threat of starvation, this ancient, Jewish family flee Judah and become refugees in the land of Moab. While in Moab, Elimelech dies, and  Mahlon and Chilion marry Moabite women, Orpah, and Ruth. After a period of ten years Mahlon and Chilion also pass away leaving, Naomi, the refugee alone. She then decides to return to her people in Judah, and Orpah and Ruth decide to go with her.

Near the end of their journey, just as they are at the border of Judah, Naomi encourages Orpah and Ruth to return to Moab, where they will be able to marry again and be taken care of. Orpah returns, however, Ruth gives these beautiful, timeless words to her mother in law; “….wherever you go I will go; wherever you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried……..”  Ruth 1:16-17  (CEB)

What a beautiful display and example of faithfulness!

Ruth could have turned around and remained in Moab. In familiar surroundings, with familiar people, familiar customs and not just familiar, but comfortable, safe, and secure. Instead, she chooses to be faithful to her mother in law, Naomi, and remain by her side. So now here is Ruth, due to her faithfulness, an immigrant and stranger in a new land.

How many times do I (we) sacrifice faithfulness to that which is familiar, safe and secure? Familiar, safe, secure and popular attitudes. Familiar, safe, secure and popular behaviors; instead of being faithful to God, ourselves and others. Instead of being faithful to our love for God and others, instead of being faithful to love, tolerance, compassion, mercy and justice, we just go along to get along instead of bravely going into unfamiliar territory.

As we read the rest of the Ruth narrative, (I will leave that to you) we will find faithfulness has its rewards for Ruth. This foreigner, this stranger, this immigrant, this daughter in law of a returning refugee, finds love, compassion and mercy in a man, Boaz. Boaz and Ruth fall in love and marry and raise a family together.

Faithfulness has its rewards, as found in the final narrative about Ruth.  Matthew 1:5-6“……Boaz was the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth. Obed was the father of Jesse. Jesse was the father of David the king….”  (CEB)  Ruth, this gentile, Moabite immigrant is mentioned in Jesus earthly genealogy.  Faithful Ruth! Great Grandmother to the beloved King David, and through the years the bloodlines flow on to Joseph the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born.

The Ruth Narrative is a beautiful example of faithfulness and the rewards of faithfulness.
Because of Ruth’s faithfulness, the rewards had lasting results for centuries and her faithfulness is still making a difference today.

As I read the Ruth narrative, and contemplate her faithfulness, I wonder, what lasting significance can or will my (your) faithfulness have?

When we are faithful to God, to ourselves, to others, to love, tolerance, compassion, mercy and justice; our faithfulness, I believe will result in lasting positive influence and reward for countless others.

Tuesday, December 22, Written by Don Daniels

Matthew 2:11 – “They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped (praised) him.”

According to the True Colors Personality Assessment I am a green person. Their workshop web site says, “Green Personality Types are: Excellent Problem Solvers. Like renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung. Born in 1875, Carl Gustav Jung was a Swiss psychotherapist and psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology. Jung proposed and developed the concepts of the extraverted and the introverted personality, archetypes, and the collective unconscious. His work has been influential in psychiatry and in the study of religion, literature, and related fields… Relate to Green (people) by being objective and logical. Listen and be open to new ideas. Value their abstract thinking.”

Some measures of my greenness are that I always had high scores in tests of pattern recognition. Also I chose Symbolic Logic as a humanities elective for my math degree from Kansas State University. So naturally I sought out analytical jobs that required logical thinking. I was a computer programmer, systems analyst, and data analyst in my professional career. So greenness is an asset in my secular life.

However, greenness is problematic in my religious life. Religious beliefs and doctrines are hard to understand, illogical, and inconsistent. That bugs me and my fellow green people. Consider, for example, the word praise. Depending upon the translation or paraphrase the word praise occurs between 170 and 300 times in the Old Testament, but only between 25 and 50 times in the New Testament. There are an average of over 6 per book in the OT but just over 2 in the NT. Why the drop in the average usage of the word praise in the post-Jesus scripture? Green people lay awake at night thinking about such things.

Do we think about what are we doing when we praise God or is it just the rote of our faith? Are we showing obedience to God? Are we recognizing of the greatness of God? Are we trying to moderate God’s emotions, i.e. quell the anger or reinforce the love? Or is it something else? Green people want to understand what they are doing.

I wonder why our praise is so situational in our daily lives. I have heard “I got a job. Praise, God.” I have never heard “I totaled my car. Praise God.” Green people like predictability and consistency.

True Colors says “Orange Personality Types are: Natural Negotiators” and “Blue Personality Types are: Excellent relationship builders.” They can understand and embrace Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” They don’t need to have all the answers. So this week I am going to let my suppressed orangeness and blueness shine through. I am going to praise God in the highest, and trust that there will be peace on earth and good will toward all people, even if I never experience it.

Thursday, December 24, Written by Don Daniels

Luke 2:20 – “The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they’d been told!”

I am uncomfortable giving praise and even more uncomfortable receiving praise. The one exception would be praising children. I never feel uncomfortable saying “Good job” to a child. However, “Good job, God” doesn’t sound quite right. A friend of ours has a favorite blessing before a meal. “Rub a dub dub. Thanks for the grub. Yea, God!” While humorous and true to our friend’s nature, it doesn’t seem quite right either. Who knows from where all that discomfort comes, but I am confident I am not the only one who feels that way.

Art and music, however, seem to be universal comfort zones for praise. I doubt very many people feel uncomfortable praising God by singing Christmas carols in church. Nancy and I ring bells. She sings in the Women’s Ensemble. I cross-stitched an angel. I purchased the pattern for the angel on a New Year’s day outing years ago. Only recently did I learn about the family connection, and perhaps spiritual synchronicity, of that purchase when I read my great-aunt’s family history notebook.

Larkin Goldsmith Mead Jr. was born on January 3, 1835, in Chesterfield, New Hampshire. He is my great-great-great uncle on my mother’s side. As an adult he was a distinguished sculptor and art teacher in America and Italy. On New Year’s Eve in 1856, 3 days before his 22nd birthday, he sculpted a snow angel with the help of his friends. The story in my great-aunt’s family history tells it a little differently: “When he was 16, Larkin lived in Brattleboro, Vermont, and on Christmas Eve he and his sister went to the town square and he sculptured an angel out of snow and his sister poured water over it to freeze the angel. What a sight on Christmas morning for the villagers to see this beautiful angel.” Here is Wallace Bruce’s poem commemorating Larkin’s work.

THE SNOW ANGEL
The sleigh bells danced that winter’s night;
Old Brattleboro rang with glee;
The windows overflowed with light;
Joy ruled each heart and Christmas tree.
But to one the bells and mirth were naught:
For his soul with deeper joy was fraught.
He waited until the guests had gone;
He waited to dream his dream alone;
And the night wore on.

Alone he stands in the silent night;
He piles the snow on the village square;
With spade for chisel, a statue white
From the crystal quarry rises fair.
No light save the stars to guide his hand,
But the image obeys his soul’s command.
The sky is draped with fleecy lawn,
The stars grow pale in the early dawn,
But the lad toils on.

And lo, in the morn the people came
To gaze on the wondrous vision there;
And they called it “The Angel,” divining its name,
For it came in silence and unaware.
It seemed no mortal hand had wrought
The uplifted face of prayerful thought;
But its features wasted beneath the sun;
Its life went out ere the day was done;
And the lad dreamed on.

And his dream was this: in the years to be
I will carve the Angel in lasting stone;
In another land beyond the sea
I will toil in darkness, will dream alone.
While others sleep I will find a way
Up through the night to the light of day.
There’s nothing desired beneath stars or sun
Which patient genius has not won.
And the boy toiled on.

The years go by. He has wrought with might;
He has gained renown in the land of art;
But the thought inspired that Christmas night

 

Still kept its place in the sculptor’s heart;
And the dream of the boy, that melted away
In the light of the sun that winter day,
Is embodied at last in enduring stone,
Snow Angel in marble, his purpose won;
And the man toils on.”

Saturday, December 26, Written by Don DanielsPhilippians 4:4-9,13 (The Message)
“Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute! Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.”

The following are sections of my Lenten “sermon” at Countryside on a Wednesday night service in 2002.

“Hi. I’m Don and I’m a perfectionist. Sounds like an introduction at an AA meeting doesn’t it? Well, it should because perfectionism is my addiction. Perfectionism is my drug of choice. I come from a long line of proud perfectionists. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all perfectionists. The Celebration Ringers know what I mean. A few years ago we played at the Presbyterian Manor and my father, a former church choir director who was a resident there, told them after the performance that ‘You guys might be pretty good if you practiced a little.’

My perfectionism and other coping mechanisms worked very well for me for most of my life and I was able to lead a pretty normal and happy life. But it did not last forever and several years ago I started having some anxiety attacks. So I went to see a therapist. My therapy followed the same steps that AA and other 12 step programs use. One of those steps is to talk about our past so that the pain and anger can be externalized and dealt with appropriately. One exercise the therapist had me do was to inventory all of the events or situations where I felt abused, abandoned, or traumatized. This was an enlightening yet painful experience and over several days I was able to identify 28 things starting with the unexpected death of my kindergarten teacher in the middle of the year. Funny things can happy during therapy. We spent a whole session on the items in my list that have to do with abandonment. At the end of the session the therapist said, “I don’t know how to tell you, but next week will be our last session. I am leaving to take another job.” Oh, ok, Number 29 on the list. ‘Therapist abandons me to take new job.’…

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, in his book ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’, suggests using recitation of scripture as the key to positive thinking. In the first chapter he suggested reciting Philippians 4:13 – ‘I can do all things thru Him who strengthens me’ seven times before going to bed…..

Another step in my therapy was to strengthen my relationship with God. So I began spending more time reading the Bible and meditating… Then God said to me thru my inner voice, “No More Fig Leaves.”

I had no idea what that meant at first. But while I was mowing the next day a light came on and I realized that God was referring to the Adam and Eve story in Genesis and that Jesus was sent to undo what Adam and Eve did when they put on their fig leaves. For unlike Adam and Eve, no matter what Jesus did or said, no matter what happened to him, he never felt ashamed of who he was…..

Before Christmas this year I was listening to O Holy Night on a Christmas music CD. I have heard and sung the words to this carol hundreds of times but this time the words sent a chill down my spine.

‘O Holy night! The stars are brightly shining.
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.’”

So on this day after Christmas, I praise God for sending Jesus to remind us that, like Jesus, we are worthy, blessed children of His creation.

Tuesday, December 29, Written by Rev. Kent Melcher

The day after Christmas, 1974, my mother died after a long battle with cancer. Our eldest, Melanie, was seven weeks old. In November, I had been fired from my job because I visited Mother in the hospital as often as I could, and as Executor of her estate I was, according to my boss, taking too much time off work to look after her business.

1975 started with grief and loss. Mother left me with the difficult task of planning her funeral, paying her bills, getting her business ready to sell, and disposing of her possessions. I had to find a new job, as the temporary job I had found would end in just a few weeks. The joy of being a new father was tempered with a great deal of stress and uncertainty.

Little did I know then that this would be a time of new beginnings.

We held Mother’s estate sale in May, 1975. A month later, Julie and I moved to Kansas, where I started a new job as a sales rep and warehouse manager for an Illinois casket company.

To be honest, we weren’t sure the move was right for us. Yes, my job was promising, but we left behind our families, our church, important friendships, the first house we bought (where we had thought we would settle down), and the familiarity of small town life. We found ourselves in the bustling metropolis of Kansas City, with more traffic than we had ever dealt with, and no friends. Unsure of the future, we leased a house in Merriam for a year so we could pack up and go home if things didn’t work out.

Forty years later, Julie and I and the kids are thoroughly “Kansans.”

Year after year, in all the places we have lived, we found supportive churches, wonderful friends, a rich and fulfilling family life, and experiences we could never have anticipated. And at every step along the way, we have known the blessings of a faithful God that have made us who we are today.

Looking back, we can see how God was calling us to a life we could never have imagined. And should we be surprised? Here is what the prophet Isaiah wrote to encourage the people of God in a dark and depressing time: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Truth is, no, we often don’t! But reflecting on our blessings reveals God’s faithful providence!

Tuesday, January 5, Written by Rev. Dr. Warren C. Swartz

Acts 20:24 “But, I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of ‘God’s Grace.'”

This week we look at the meaning of “Grace” for our lives. Theologically, it means, “the unmerited love and favor of God toward humanity,” but what does it mean to you and me personally?

I want to share my thoughts on the way it affects us in three areas. One personally, two toward others, three how it sets the pattern for our relationship with God. God’s grace toward us is that God forgives and accepts us if we are willing to make the change of attitude or behaviors. My question for you is simply, can you forgive yourself? We close the season of Christmas with the celebration of Epiphany, twelve days following December 25th. Were you comfortable in receiving all the gifts you found under the tree this year or were you wishing family and friends had not been so generous? Did I really deserve all this attention? God’s grace gives you the assurance that “YES” or if not”yes” how can I make 2016 a positive year to feel better about myself? The beginning place in the understanding of the meaning of “God’s Grace” is to start with yourself. Can you forgive yourself for the mistakes or failures in your life? God says “YES.” Don’t be so hard on yourself. On my desk is a cup filled with pencils, and almost all the erasers are worn down. We make mistakes, but we can correct them. We can erase the mistakes and start over.

Paul says in our scripture for the week, “I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course.” The New Year begins, get a new pencil with a fresh eraser. Learn to forgive yourself.

PRAYER: Thank you God for giving me the chance to start over in 2016. Amen

Thursday, January 7, Written by Rev. Dr. Warren C. Swartz

Acts 20:24 “But, I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of ‘God’s Grace.'”

On Tuesday, we looked at “Grace” and considered how difficult it is to forgive yourself. There is not a day that goes by that you do not think back and realize there was a better way to handle some situations in your life. Today, let’s look at “Grace” as we try to forgive someone else. This may be as difficult as forgiving yourself. It may have been a family member, a close friend, someone you worked with. Now because of some reason, there is a gap in your relationship with them. What was a wonderful friendship seems to have collapsed. Let me refer you back to the words of Paul in Acts 20:24. “But, I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course.” Remember that anger or hurt feelings toward another does not hurt them, for they may not even be aware of the feelings you harbor, but they do hurt you. In Luke 6:37 Jesus said, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged, do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven, give and it will be given to you.”

Think of ways to reunite the friendship. A short note inquiring of their well-being. A phone call or a chance to sit down over a cup of coffee or tea. You may not get a response or you may find that a broken or bruised relationship can be healed. Turn again to Luke 6:27, “But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, bless those who abuse you.” Forgiving others is not easy, but it is a way of peace for yourself. Keep in mind the theological concept of “GRACE.” “The unmerited love and favor of God toward humanity.” Practice “GRACE” in your everyday living.

PRAYER: Holy God, help me to see the reason and purpose in forgiving others. Amen.

Saturday, January 9, Written by Rev. Dr. Warren C. Swartz

Acts 20:24 “But, I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of “God’s Grace.”

We are now nine days into the New Year and I am still struggling to find a way to explain “Grace,” so it is understandable. I often wonder if Jesus had the same issue. The theology of “Grace” is a New Testament concept. After a brief scanning of the Concordance (a book that lists every word in the Bible), I found the term “Grace” only once in Jeremiah 31:2. “Thus says the Lord: The people who survived the sword found ‘grace’ in the wilderness when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away; I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.”

What God originally intended, Jesus brought to life in his ministry and teaching. God’s love for us is so overwhelming that nothing we do can take it away. The writer of the dictionary I have on my desk, though not a theologian, gave me this explanation of “Grace.” “The unmerited love and favor of God toward humanity.” The term “Grace of God” becomes a common knowledge and understanding as Jesus found the New Testament church. The words of Jesus, the writings of Paul, the authors of the letters sent among the churches rested on the concept of “GRACE.”

So, my conclusion is simply this, if God can forgive me, what is keeping me from forgiving myself and forgiving others?

PRAYER: Thank you God for your Grace in my life and in the lives of others. Amen.

Tuesday, January 12, Written by Becky Ericson

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in faith so that you overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.   – Romans 15:13 (CEB)

Every year, as soon as Christmas passes, my husband begins his annual plea to move to California. He detests winter and would much rather live somewhere with more even temperatures.  However I must admit, I’m one of those weird people that likes winter.  I love going sledding and building snow people with my kids (in fact, don’t be surprised if you still find snow families in our yard once our kids are grown).  Winter means chili and soup and yummy, warm (easy-to-make) meals in the Crock Pot.  Nothing beats an evening curled up under a blanket with a book or movie, good cup of coffee or cocoa, and a fire or candle burning.

Don’t get me wrong, I can get depressed like the average person when the days are short, the temperatures are frigid, the surrounding landscape looks lifeless and barren, and no sun or snow are in sight.  It is easy to get a case of the winter blues. Oddly though, this is what I appreciate the most about winter. Some days are depressing and rough, but my mind knows that spring lies just on the horizon. There is hope! Soon, new buds will start peeking out of the ground. Days will grow longer. Temperatures will warm and the ground will thaw out. Winter will not have the final word!

How our lives mirror the seasons! We are going along just fine when suddenly the temperatures drop, the sky grows cloudy and it’s snowing so hard that we can’t see two feet in front of us. For some of you, perhaps you’ve been living in Antarctica for a few years now.  Yet we have a Light who can help us have the strength we need to make it through the winter.  God is our hope, a hope that will never leave us. Just like it is hard to think about spring in the middle of a blizzard, sometimes hope through God is tough to grasp or trust in the middle of life’s worst storms. Yet God is there, always listening. This is part of the mystery of faith to me. I can always manage to find hope when I talk to God in the midst of a storm. Sometimes it’s just a glimmer, other times a floodlight, yet that hope is always there when I am open to receiving it.

If you are in the midst of a blizzard, I pray that you might feel a little glimmer of peace and hope as you reach out to God. If it is not winter in your life, I pray that you can slow down enough to enjoy the season surrounding you, thanking God every step of the way! Oh, and wish me luck as I continue to try to convince my husband that California is not that great!

PRAYER: Almighty God, fill me with YOUR hope, joy, and peace through all the seasons of my life. Amen.

Thursday, January 14, Written by Becky Ericson

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever!    – Hebrews 13:8
“In changing times, lay hold of the unchanging character of God. “ – Max Lucado
“Things change. People change. God remains faithful through it all.”

Change.  A five letter word that is packed with emotions – excitement, sadness, fear, anger. Some people embrace change while others start kicking and screaming immediately. Personally, I think I tolerate change pretty well unless it comes out of the blue and messes with my well-laid out plans. That is when I tend to dig in my heels and fight back.

We all experience seasons of change. Thinking back on my own life, one of my biggest seasons of changes was also one of my most difficult.  I lived most of my life in the Kansas City area, so I am a KC girl at heart. When my husband finished his training at KU Med, we were faced with a decision regarding where to live. We were expecting a baby and felt the pull to remain in Kansas, near family.  Despite my desire to remain in KC and a job offer there, I reluctantly agreed that Topeka was the better choice for him and therefore us, and embraced the change as best I could.
One month before we were going to move, right when we were in the middle of trying to sell our little duplex and purchase a house in Topeka, I lost my baby and two days later suffered a different health issue that led to a brief hospital stay. That whole next month is one dark blur. Many tears were shed as I said goodbye to our house, family, friends, and a church that I loved. (Yes, I know…I was only moving one hour away, but it didn’t feel like it at the time!)  I’m pretty certain I tried hard to convince my husband to change his mind and accept the job he was offered in KC.  I could not handle all of this change that had been forced upon me. Life felt so out of control and I resented that.

I wish I could say that it was easy to embrace change once we were here in Topeka, but it was not. I continued to work in KC until I had my eldest child, then remained home with her. She was a fussy baby and I did not have any family in town to help and had not met enough people to have any sort of support network. Life was changing so rapidly and it felt like more than I could bear.

Somewhere along the line, God gently led me to discover that through all of the change that occurs in life, one thing remains the same: God. No matter what happened in my life, God had always been there, my source of hope when I felt hopeless. This realization helped to carry me through a long season of challenging change and also helped me to remember to turn my eyes toward God rather than my present circumstances. As I shared more of my time talking with God, my heart felt more at peace and I was filled with the strength to endure the changes in my life.

How about you? Can you look back on a season of change in your life and see God’s presence, even if you couldn’t necessarily feel it at the time? Are you entering a season of change? Will you choose to embrace it as best you can and trust that God will not change or leave your side?

PRAYER: God, help us turn our eyes to you through seasons of change. May we give you the praise and glory during seasons of exciting and welcome change. Help us seek hope and peace in you during the challenging seasons of change. Thank you for being the same yesterday, today and forever in our lives. Amen.

Saturday, January 16, Written by Becky Ericson

“I don’t stop giving thanks to God for you when I remember you in my prayers.”  Ephesians 1:16

We’ve been talking this week about light in all of life’s journeys and how God can be our source of hope and peace as we experience winters in our lives or seasons of unwanted change. I don’t know about you, but I believe God works through people to provide light through our journeys as well.

Take a moment to consider some relationships in your life. Right now, who do you turn to first when something is going wrong? What about when something exciting happens?

Think about someone who has been in your life for a long time. How has he/she shaped you through your life journey?

Can you recall someone who made a big impression on your life, despite being a part of it for a short amount of time?

Relationships are not always easy. People aren’t perfect and every little decision we make has the capacity to impact the lives of those around us, both for good and for bad. Relationships often take work. Yet relationships are one of the greatest gifts God has given us. If you have read some of the letters in the New Testament, did you notice how many times the authors begin or end their letter saying they give thanks to God for their intended audience? It is obvious that the authors cared about these people!

Consider pausing for a moment today to thank God for relationships in your life! If you are in some unhealthy relationships right now or in the process of forming new relationships, consider looking back and thanking God for someone in your past then ask for help or guidance in the present.

As for me, I thank God for YOU and the blessing that is Countryside! No matter what may happen in the seasons that lie ahead, I am so thankful for God’s unchanging presence and for our constant relationships with each other as we seek to be a church of blessing!

Tuesday, January 19, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

“Why am I receiving my Spirit Notes at 10:30pm instead of 4am like usual?”

Go ahead, you know you want to ask yourself that question.* There’s a short and easy answer: because I messed up and dropped the ball.

Today is Tuesday. But I was on vacation last week and yesterday was a holiday and I kid you not it was like 3pm today before I realized that today is Tuesday. I messed up and didn’t get it done in time.

Here’s another secret (don’t tell anyone at church): I’m about to mess something else up tomorrow. I should have finished the Connection newsletter today. I normally do that on Tuesday but today felt like Monday and I kid you not it was like 7pm before I realized tomorrow is Wednesday. I messed up and didn’t get that done on time either.

Other things I messed up today: I seem to have misplaced my son’s favorite green airplane when I was cleaning (read: shoveling toys from one room to another). I burnt dinner a little. Approximately 57 of you are actively waiting to hear back on an email from me that I haven’t managed to find time to send yet. I think I let my office plant die while I was on vacation. I wimped out on the last half of my workout this morning.

There are a bunch of others, but you get the point. In the vernacular of one of my favorite children’s books, it’s kind of been a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad day. Some days are like that, the book says. I bet you’ve had one like that too sometime.

At this point in our THNGVBD (terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad day), we kind of get a choice, don’t we? Option 1: we can grump, blame others, and hate ourselves for all the things we so thoroughly messed up. We can wallow in self-pity for all the forces that came together to make this a THNGVBD, and dog on ourselves in shame, blame, and anger for dropping the balls which have been entrusted to us. Option 2: we can practice forgiveness and love. We can sigh over what wasn’t accomplished, take a deep breath, and vow to try again tomorrow. Ahhh, you say, but that’s fine and dandy to forgive others, but you don’t realize how badly I messed things up. Forgiveness seems impossible when directed at ourselves.

So let me ask you the question: how many times in the Bible do you remember Jesus commanding his disciples to dwell on each other’s shortcomings? None? I can’t think of any either. I can think of a lot (A LOT) of instances when Jesus called us to be loving, grace-filled, forgiving people. People who strive to grow as disciples every day. People who practice humility and strive to live in harmony with others. Those things are what we are called to show to others. Why could we not direct them at ourselves? I know it seems hard, but the same love we are called to pour out upon others should also be directed back at ourselves. Love calls us to be accountable for those areas of our lives where we need to make changes or engage in intentional growth. But love also calls us to stop constantly piercing ourselves with anger and hatred, and to strive to become better people so that we can model grace in all parts of our lives.

Tomorrow you’re going to get your Connection a little bit late. I’m sorry about that. I’ll bet I don’t get caught up on my email either, and there’s a pretty good chance I will mess up something I can’t even anticipate yet. It may even turn into a THNGVBD. I apologize.

Wait…

Did you just feel a rush of condemnation for me that makes you want to hold hatred, anger, and disgust against me for all eternity? No? Then today is the day to free yourself from directing that condemnation, hatred, anger, and disgust toward yourself for your shortcomings as well.

Happy freedom.

*Some of you are reading this and thinking, “I couldn’t care less what time I get an email from the church. Why is she making such a big deal out of it?” That’s not the point. The point is, I was supposed to send it earlier and it didn’t happen. Fail.

Thursday, January 21, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

“Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.'” – John 20:27

I love Doubting Thomas. I think he was probably my kind of guy. I am by nature a very skeptical person, much more prone to cynicism than trusting. Present me with an advertisement and I’ll search the fine print for the “catch.” Give me a sound byte and I’ll try to figure out what you’re covering up. Tell me you only ate one cookie when your face is covered in chocolate and you’ll get a consequence whether you own up to it or not. I just don’t tend to trust very easily.

So when Jesus shows up to the disciples all huddled in the upper room after his death, and Thomas isn’t with them and doesn’t believe their story, a big piece of me wants to shout at the Bible, “You go, Thomas! Tell ’em what for! It doesn’t make logical sense!” Poor Thomas has gotten a bad rap for centuries because he didn’t believe, but really he’s just the patron saint of cynics.

I have always been fascinated, then, by the fact that although the church has chewed out Thomas for millennia for his choice, Jesus did not. Jesus, it should be noted, not only did not condemn Thomas for asking for proof, he offered the proof himself. He met Thomas right where Thomas needed to be met and gave him exactly the support he needed.

Imagine with me if Jesus had tried to change Thomas instead. Then perhaps, instead of the quote we see in the scripture, we might find words like this, “Geez, Thomas, get it together! Why do you always have to mess everything up?! I gave you one job. One! Just to believe in me, and you can’t even do that. You’re out of the clan.”

Sounds pretty un-Jesus-like, doesn’t it? That’s because even when he was faced with people he didn’t agree with or who didn’t behave “correctly,” Jesus always met them with love instead of condemnation. Think of all the people Jesus encountered who were “sinners,” or “outcasts,” or “unclean.” Almost always he greeted them with love and compassion. He rarely ever tried to change them – he just loved them for who they were.

Now let me ask you this: how much time and effort and energy have you spent lately trying to change someone else? Trying to get them to act differently, think differently, step up, slow down, clean up, get it together, or just pick up after themselves? It’s a frustrating task, isn’t it? Rarely ever do people change in the ways we sometimes try so desperately to mold them.

What if we took a clue from Jesus’ behavior, though, and instead of trying to change them, we just loved them for who they are, frustrating irritations and all? That’s what Jesus did to Thomas. Maybe Jesus was internally rolling his eyes when he greeted Thomas. Maybe he wanted to bang his head against the wall because no matter what he did the disciples just. didn’t. get. it. We don’t know for sure, because all we have in the scripture at the little verses that say Jesus greeted Thomas and presented him with the proof he needed.

Interestingly enough, after he greets him this way, offering love and compassion instead of condemnation, Thomas’ next action is to proclaim his faith. Maybe Jesus knew that if he stepped back from trying to control and change Thomas, Thomas would grow into what he needed to be.

I challenge us today to try to give up the reins of control over someone else. (Let’s face it – we never really controlled them anyway, so all we’re really giving up is trying to control them.) Let’s decide today we will love that person just for whomever he or she is, just the way God created him or her to be. We will strive to love them without boundaries, stipulations, or strings attached, as much as possible. We will aim to love them, perhaps, just a little bit more like Jesus loves them – just the way they are.

Thomas, it must be noted, NEVER had reason to doubt Jesus’ love. Let’s give our irritating, unchangeable loved ones no reason to doubt ours either.

Saturday, January 23, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

“When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept.” – John 11:32-35

This little passage is a part of the story of Lazarus dying and Jesus calling him forth out of the tomb alive. Most scholars agree that the writers of the gospels included that story in the Bible to demonstrate Jesus having power over death. I love the story, however, for a completely different reason.

When the writers of the gospels were writing the Bible, they had one overarching task: convince the readers that the man Jesus was the Son of God. So they spent a lot of time focusing on his powers, his miracles, the things that set him apart as different from normal humans. But when we read the scriptures, usually it is with the presupposed understanding of Jesus as the Son of God, so what we often miss is that the Son of God was the man Jesus. Sometimes we forget that he was a human being with the same struggles as the rest of us.

That’s why I love the story of Lazarus – because Jesus is so real in it. He gets drawn (again) into Mary and Martha’s ongoing family squabbles. He has to deal with Martha’s action of dealing with her grief about her brother by reproaching him. Then he gets to the tomb, and he’s surrounded by people who are intensely grieving and missing Lazarus, and Jesus himself looks at the tomb, looks at the sobbing people all around him, and breaks down in tears himself. In that moment in the scripture, we are looking in not on the Son of God, but the human Jesus.

I know that because I have watched that exact same scene play out dozens of times when I have been with families who have lost loved ones. A beloved member of the family passes away. The family members are sad, but they are in Keep It Together and Take Care of Things mode. They make arrangements. They handle details. They make decisions, and then more decisions, and more decisions. They choose to rise above the inevitable family divisions. They put up with each other. And then the moment comes when the details are mostly handled, and the family is sitting at home, or at the funeral home, or wherever, and a family member who hasn’t been able to be there yet walks in. Silence falls. And then, as if finally given the permission they need to let down the walls, the family collectively breaks down in tears, hugging each other silently and finally allowing themselves to begin processing their deep grief.

I have watched that same pattern happen time and again when I am sitting with families. I watched it play out in my own family this summer when my grandfather passed away. No doubt many of you have experienced something similar in your lives as well. It’s why I love this passage of scripture so much – Jesus is just being a human being, in the midst of messy, complicated family relationships, processing his deep grief about losing his friend.

I think of this story often whenever I am tempted to believe that my struggles, whatever they may be that day, are unique. I remind myself that no matter what I may feel like I am going through, I am loved by a God who has felt the human struggles, lived the human pains, and offers a grace bigger than the passing moments, as hard as they may be sometimes. I believe Jesus lived many of the same hard moments that arise in my life, and loved the people around him through them.

I invite you today to consider the ways God is offering you love and grace through whatever you may be facing today. Are there people who have offered love and support, but you have found it hard to receive? Consider saying a grateful “yes, thank you.” Are there ways that your stubbornness or pride has impeded you from receiving the grace God is pouring into your life? Maybe today is the day to let God’s love wash over your life.

You and I serve a God who knows exactly how it feels, no matter what “it” is. Let us rest in that knowledge and love today.

Tuesday, January 26, Written by Rev. Rick Saylor

Last Sunday we celebrated Confirmation. The confirmation experience has always been dear to my heart, even as I remember mine – 50 years ago. In fact I still have my confirmation book which was titled “Being A Christian.” It’s been fun for me to look at it from time to time and see what the content was as well as some my answers to questions.

Here’s one I find delightful. Towards the end of the book is a section titled “Duties of Members” whereupon I was “to write a list of duties which members ought to do.” Here was what I wrote 50 years ago:
To be serious,
faithful to attend worship services,
study the bible daily,
pray,
give time and talents to God’s service,
give a tenth of my money
witness for Christ at home, school and work,
observe the sacraments.

I think it was a good list in getting started in fulfilling my duties as a member. Though I wonder where I got my first answer “to be serious.” It is true that early in my life and throughout my life I have taken responsibilities seriously (maybe too much so at times).

As I review my list I’m amazed at how much of this list is still true for me today in my life. So I give thanks for the saints of the church and the pastor who were an essential part of my confirmation experience half a century ago.

How about you. What would your list of “duties of a member” contain? And who are the people who have been mentors that have formed your faith and spiritual life? Take a moment after reading this to “be serious” and create your list of duties of a member. And then remember important mentors in your life and give thanks.

Sharing the Journey
Rick Saylor

Thursday, January 28, Written by Rev. Rick Saylor

My faith was born and spiritual life was nurtured in a small Evangelical United Methodist Church in Jennerstown, Pennsylvania. It was a small church of around 100 people. Everyone knew each other and the congregation shared “life together.” It was a genuine experience of community.

As years have passed I have been so grateful for that experience of community. It shaped my values and expectations regarding how people of faith should relate to each other. Be sure it wasn’t simply a community of uniformity. People disagreed with each other and anger at times flashed. But even in those times there was a deep value that even in times of disagreement, we were still a community of faith seeking to love God and one another.

The sacrament of communion was always a great moment of “community” as everyone took their turns coming to the communion rail and while kneeling received the bread and cup. And I was always moved by the look on people’s faces when they left the rail and returned to their seats. There were smiles and tears, looks of gratitude and concern, spirits of peace and longing.

And we were one in Christ.

I am so grateful for our sense of being a community of faith at Countryside. You have heard me use this phrase often for we are first and foremost a community of faith. Yes we are a church, a denomination and a congregation with a building. But that is secondary to our true identity. For we are primarily a community of faith – people relating to each other in a loving way where faith is born and our spiritual lives are nurtured.

Take a moment today and pray for our Countryside community of faith.

Sharing the Journey,
Rick Saylor

Saturday, January 30, Written by Rev. Rick Saylor

Jesus began his ministry by quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor..”

Jesus names that his ministry to others is created by the Spirit of God. The Bible has story after story of people who are able to reach out, serve, lead and minister to others because of God’s Spirit given to them. I was 13 years old when I felt the call to ordained ministry. Be certain there was much anxiety and uncertainty where this call would lead. But I sensed God had a “call” on my life to serve as a pastor of a church. As I look back I can see so many ways that God’s spirit “empowered me” to serve and lead.

I believe each of us are “called” by God to serve and minister to others in the name of Jesus in some manner in our lives. It may be through your work, or volunteering or your way of “being a loving presence.” And in the midst of the call will also be the abilities, determination and courage to serve as the “spirit of God is upon you.”

As we seek to be a church of blessing at Countryside, let’s remember the model Jesus gave us to bring good news to the poor. We have many ways and opportunities in Topeka to bring love, care and support to the poor. It’s part of our calling. And it’s a natural response when the Spirit of God is upon us.

Sharing the Journey,
Rick Saylor

Tuesday, February 2, Written by Nancy Daniels

“A new command I give you; love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” – John 13:34

Decades of research shows that human beings are meant for connection. Premature babies who are stroked gain more weight, baby rats who are licked frequently by their mothers are less likely to be nervous and anxious. Bear hugs have been scientifically linked to reducing high blood pressure and stress. Apparently Karl Menninger was right when he said, “Love cures people- both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.”

I see it and feel it in my own life when I push myself beyond my comfort zone to make a connection with a stranger or a friend, to be generous when I don’t feel like giving. The result is not only emotional, but physical and spiritual. My heart is opened, my spirit warmed and I walk away with a glow that lasts for hours.

I once told my husband, Don, that I thought my friend thought I was cheap. He replied, “I suspect there is something in you that feels that you are cheap too. Why don’t you act generous until you believe that you are?” Once again, Don was right. Even when I don’t “feel like” giving, my heart is changed.

Thomas Merton wrote, “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.”

Thursday, February 4, Written by Nancy Daniels

I Corinthians 12:27: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

Almost 50 years ago a Harvard social psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to figure out the answer to the “small world” question. The question is this: How are human beings connected? Do we belong to separate worlds, operating simultaneously but autonomously, so that the links between any two people, anywhere in the world, are few and distant? Or are we all bound up together in a grand, interlocking web?

Milgram’s idea was to start a chain letter. He chose 160 people from Omaha, Nebraska at random and sent them a packet. Inside the packet was the name and address of a stockbroker who worked in Boston and lived in Sharon, Massachusetts. Each person was instructed to write his name on a roster in the packet and send it on to a friend or acquaintance he thought would get it closer to the stockbroker. Most people guess that it would take 100 or more stops before acquaintances find a person who knows the stockbroker. Nope. On average, it took five or six steps. It is from this experiment that we get the concept of six degrees of separation.

Scientists have proven what we know in our spirits — we are connected to each other. We are all children of God, carrying with us the opportunity to create something beautiful… or to disconnect.

“We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” ― William James

Nancy Daniels

Research is from an article by Malcolm Gladwell, “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg” in The New Yorker, January 11, 1999.

Saturday, February 6, Written by Nancy Daniels

“There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” – 1 Corinthians 12:4-7.

Do you remember the loveable Phoebe from the popular TV series, Friends? In one episode, Phoebe asserts that she does not help others just to feel good and sets out to prove that it is possible to give without getting. No matter how she tried, every time she helped someone else she’d say, “Dang it! There’s that good feeling again!”

Now the research is in: adults over age 50 who volunteer on a regular basis are less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers, they have a higher sense of purpose, less depression and greater life satisfaction. It is speculated that volunteer activities strengthen the social ties that protect individuals from isolation during difficult times, while the experience of helping others leads to a sense of greater self-worth and trust.

“I slept, and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke, and I saw that life is all service. I served, and I saw that service is joy.” – Kahlil Gibran

Nancy Daniels

Research is from “The Health Benefits of Volunteering” A review of recent research by the Corporation for National & Community Service.

Tuesday, February 9, Written by Rev. Dr. Warren C. Swartz

Titus 1:2 – “In the hope of ETERNAL LIFE that God, who never lies promised before the ages began.”

The term “ETERNAL LIFE” is a concept and belief of Christianity. The word “ETERNAL LIFE” is found only five times in the Old Testament. It is used to describe the “eternal mountains” or the “eternal God is your dwelling place.” The New Testament used the word eternal at least sixty-nine times, and many of these uses were with the word “ETERNAL LIFE.” Jesus used the term in his preaching and teaching to assure those who knew him, that the love of God is endless. The term eternal as used today in our language is that it is outside or beyond time. In other words “eternal” is endless and timeless.

You cannot escape the “eternal” love of God. You can ignore it, disregard it, but it is still there. The resurrection of Jesus by a God of love sets the scene for the belief that we have today. God showing to us the promise of “ETERNAL LIFE.” “ETERNAL LIFE” allows us to be free from sin, anger, discouragement. It allows us to be free of the limitations of movement or speed or thought that some live with today.

In the 21st chapter of Revelation, the writer tries to set the whole process in motion. “See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them, He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:3-4

“ETERNAL LIFE” is the promise of a God who loves us. I am not certain how it happens, but I trust my God who is looking out for me.

Let us consider more about “ETERNAL LIFE” in the other Spirit Notes of this week.

Thursday, February 11, Written by Rev. Dr. Warren C. Swartz

Romans 2:7 – “To those by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give ETERNAL LIFE.”

In the book of Romans the reference to eternal life deals with our relationship with others. It is true that we at times become impatient and agitated at the actions of others. We know in our hearts that it does no good. It is the expectation as part of Christian living to get along with others.

Matthew 7:1-2 we find in the words of Jesus a way to make Christian living easier. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” In many settings, family, workplace, even the church it is so easy to be critical of the efforts of others. Jesus was correct in that when you criticize the efforts of others, they will be critical of you.

I believe one of the most difficult jobs to have would be to judge a figure skating competition. Every movement and action has a certain standard the judge must use to reach the score for the participant. I have trouble just standing on ice skates on the ice. I admire the person who must judge the performance of each skater.

Life is like that, we are not perfect, but try to do the best we can. Your efforts at whatever you attempt may be far from perfect, but you need to keep trying. Life is not easy, and you may wonder who notices and cares. God not only notices but cares about each one of you and the author of Romans says, “To those who patiently do good, he will give eternal life.” The next time you are tempted to be judgmental, remember the person judging the ice skating competition. This is what God is doing for each of us, but he always gives us the prize, “ETERNAL LIFE.”

Saturday, February 13, Written by Rev. Dr. Warren C. Swartz

John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have ETERNAL LIFE.”

The subject of “ETERNAL LIFE” usually comes up at the time of expected death or death of one we love. It is the promise of God, given through the words of Jesus that there is something beyond the life we are now living. The Bible does not give us any specific description of what “ETERNAL LIFE” is like. Many have written about what they believe as an attempt to answer the question. I do not find any of these attempts as an adequate explanation.

I know we are given a certain number of days or years to live out the opportunities to serve God. The Bible does outline the teachings of God for this. As we study the scriptures as they use the term “ETERNAL LIFE,” it is always a gift of hope.

We know that “ETERNAL LIFE” will be different from life today, and how will it be different? Jesus’ appearance following the resurrection was very different than his earthly life. I honestly say to you I have no answer to what it is like, but turning to our Bible I offer this.

John 14:1-3 – “Do not let your heart be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

On the matter of “ETERNAL LIFE,” I trust in Jesus.

Tuesday, February 16, Written by Rev. Nancy Gammill

“Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.” – Psalm 143:8

This is the week of Valentine’s Day. I hope you had the opportunity or will continue to have this week the chance to express your love or care for special members of your family or friends. When my husband was killed in 1986, it was February 6 and the 14th came and went that year almost unnoticed by me. I was much more concerned with the survival of my youngest son, who was hospitalized at KU Med Center in very serious condition. I gave very little thought to the holiday until several weeks later when I was finally able to return to the church where my husband and I were going to serve jointly. I remember that I was still feeling very down and depressed and wondering what the future held and wondering why this had to happen to me. Normal response, right? I started going through his stuff because I was going to have to transfer it to my office or home or get rid of it. Imagine my delight when the first thing I did was open the top drawer of his desk to find a gorgeous valentine card he had already bought for me and signed for me way back before he died! You have to understand he was a very romantic fellow but he  never did things like that, that early, except this one time. Only God would have known how important finding that valentine was going to be to me in just a few weeks!

Finding that valentine was for me evidence of God’s ongoing unfailing love for me and my boys; even when life was still pretty dark, I felt the light of Christ shine through so I could keep on keeping on. That love got me through those dark days and continues to do so to this day. May we all feel blessed with that special Love that is ours, not just on Valentine’s Day, but every day of the year!

Prayer: Holy and loving God, help us to keep our eyes and ears and hearts attuned to the evidence of your great Love in Jesus Christ that is all around us, especially in the small things we encounter every day and the special people we meet. Amen.

Thursday, February 18, Written by Rev. Nancy Gammill

“You have searched me and known me… For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” – Psalm 139

When I was serving in Louisiana in the late 70’s, I had the opportunity to visit the leprosarium in Carville, La. Most of what I knew about leprosy, I had gained from studying the Bible, but by the time I visited the leprosarium, it had become known as Hansen’s Disease, and much more was and is known about its origin, and treatment. Nevertheless, what I witnessed there and the ravages of that disease on people’s lives was terrible. While I was there, the group I was with had the opportunity to meet with the director of the leprosarium, a man named Dr. Paul Brand. He was very knowledgeable, of course, about the disease, and about the treatment that was being offered there. But what struck me the most about him was the way he interacted with the patients. They approached him in a very familiar way, as if he truly was a member of their family. He reached out and touched them, as if they were not disfigured or missing part of their limbs. It was clear he was seeing them, not the disease, and that love, as much as any medication or treatment, was part of their healing process. Later I read the book that Dr. Brand wrote about his experience with Hansen’s disease, and the name of that book is taken from Psalm 139. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” How hard it must have been to be able to make that faith statement in the face of the disfigurement he saw all around him every day! And yet he trusted and instilled in others the same kind of trust, that God sees beyond all of that and sees only the beauty of what he has created and helped grow.

I think we know that we are truly growing in the Spirit when we can see others the way God sees us, as beautiful creations with the potential to become all that he can help us become.

Saturday, February 20, Written by Rev. Nancy Gammill

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:4-7

I have two dogs who are usually very friendly to most everybody. One of them, however, has a particular instinct, it seems about who is not to be trusted. How a dog picks up on that, is beyond me. However, I have learned to trust that instinct in her, and later have often understood why she reacts the way she does to whoever it is, sometimes a particular person who comes to work in the house, or sometimes even, sadly, a member of the family.

How do we decide who can be trusted and who cannot? We do not always have the keen instincts that an animal may pick up on, but sometimes we pick up on the fact that what is being said, for example, is not what actually turns out to be true. Or perhaps we discover that in spite of our good intentions with someone, we find ourselves being used by them in some way for their own gain. Once that happens it is very difficult to trust that person completely ever again. So how do we keep loving that person even when we do not trust them?

I think I have finally come to understand, when I find myself in this kind of situation, that I cannot really do anything to change that person’s behavior, that only God ultimately can do that. I have come to realize that what I need to tend to is my response to that person, so that I do not respond in kind to them or make the situation worse, but try to be sure that anything I say or do is said or done in love, desiring only the best for them, and letting God do the rest to ultimately change their hearts. And I can forgive, maybe not openly to them, but in my heart, asking God to help me do that, and help me to move on and let go of fretting about it. Then I trust God for whatever lies ahead both for that person and for me.

Prayer: O Lord, grant me the grace to trust you when I cannot handle alone what life hands me. And in all things, Lord, fill my heart with peace, the peace of heart and mind that only Christ can give.

Tuesday, February 23, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

“Make it your aim to be at one in the Spirit, and you will be bound together in peace. There is one Body and one Spirit, just as it was to one hope that you were called. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, the one working through all and the one living in all.” Ephesians 4:3-6, J.B. Phillips Translation

Two words that best define Christianity, are diversity and oneness. Think of the diversity of Christianity, the Followers of Jesus Christ, the Body of Christ, the Church, whichever phrase or word you choose.

Diverse peoples of all races and world locations, diverse in how they view and or interpret scripture, diverse in core articles of faith and beliefs, diverse in styles and preferences of worship. We could make a list page upon page of how Christianity differs throughout the world, our nation and even our city.

I wonder if maybe the reason Christianity is losing its appeal, its influence in the world, is because Christians, Followers of Christ, too many times, and some, most of the time focus on what separates us, or what makes one branch of Christian thought and practice different from another. Many times we are unconsciously led into us against them mentality.

However, even though Christianity can be defined as diverse, I think the greatest word that defines or should define Christianity is the word ONENESS!

The Apostle Paul writing to a very diverse church, in a very diverse society, points to one Body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, over all, working through all, and living in all. Now that is ONENESS! That is exciting! Out of all the diversity we are one with one another all over the world.

My glass half full, progressive mind tells me, that what makes us one, is so much greater than that which separates us or makes us different. We are one in God’s love for all. “God loved the whole world….He gave His Son! We are one in our love for God. I do not know of one single person who identifies as a Follower of Christ that would not profess a deep love for our Creator, Father, Divine Parent God. We are one in our love for one another. Even though there is much that separates, there runs throughout all Christianity a true love for others, and for one another. Even though the way that love is shown is as diverse and at times mysterious as Christianity itself. We are one in purpose. To show God’s love and share God’s love for all the world, our world, through our worship, our words and our actions.

Our National Motto, the Latin words, e pluribus unum, defined, out of many one, can be and should be the motto of Christianity, out of many one. One Body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, over all, working through all, and living in all.

In our Christian faith, there is great diversity. However, let us celebrate, and live out in our lives for all the world to see, the great ONENESS of our faith. That which makes us one, that which brings us together, that which will make a difference. One God, one love, one purpose.

The prayer of Jesus as recorded in John’s Gospel 17:23 “I in them and you in me, that they may grow complete into one, so the world may realize, that you sent me and love them as you love me.”

Thursday, February 25, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

“We have many parts in one body, but all parts don’t have the same function. In the same way, though there are many of us we belong to each other. We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us.” Romans 12:5-6

I love marching bands! One of the best part of any high school or college football game is the Pregame and Half Time Show, performed by one of the institutions marching band. In a marching band you have several people, with various degree of talent, playing different instruments, different notes, yet, all coming together to make one great vibrant, beautiful sound. Moreover, you have the same group of individuals moving in sometimes different directions and at different times, yet, making interesting shapes and movements that in the end tell a story.

When I think of a marching band, I am reminded of the beauty of The Body of Christ, as evidenced in and through the various and diverse communities of faith. Regardless of the size, every faith community is comprised of several different individuals with various degree of experience on the walk of faith. Each individual has specific gifts, talents interest and passion. Each individual will at times be “playing different notes on a different instrument”, but in the end the entire community is “playing” the same tune. The Love of God as shown to and through people of faith.

Within every community of faith, at times it may seem that individuals are moving in several directions, and at several different times, yet, in the end they come together to tell one great story, God’s Love as shown to and through people of faith.

At Countryside, I (we) are so blessed, to be a part of such a community of faith. So many different “notes” and “movements” yet all coming together to form a beautiful song and story of God’s love. Together, we form one mighty band playing the song and telling the story of God’s love, through our worship, through our giving of time, talent and finances, and through our service to one another, our community, and to our world.

One more word and comparison to a marching band. No instrument is of greater value than another, not one member is more valuable than another, and no movement is any less important. What matters is that all individuals are always playing and moving together to form the one song and tell the one story.

Do you see the comparison? Within a community of faith, the people are all of the same importance as they make the music of God’s love together, and as together, they move to tell the story of God’s love.

So, together, as one, let us keep the instruments playing, and let us keep moving, continuing to let the song of God’s love be played, and the story of His love told in and through each of us and our great community of faith.

Saturday, February 27, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

“God created humanity, in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”…”The Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils and the human came to life…” Genesis 1:27, 2:7 (CEB)

In the two previous Spirit Notes, we have looked at oneness, as it relates to those belonging to the Christian faith and individual communities of the Christian faith. Now, I want to look at oneness as it relates to all peoples of all faiths, as well as all races and nationalities of the entire world.

In recent years, we have watched, with a number of emotions, as scenes of earthquake, flood, famine, war, terror, and a host of other calamities have played and play out right before our eyes on our televisions. When tragedy, and calamity strike, all eyes and attention seem to focus on the particular city, nation, or region of the world where the event is taking place. Prayers are offered, speeches are given, money and goods are collected, any and all aid and comfort available is sent. For a few hours, days, or weeks we somehow seem to become one world and one people.

Though after a time, things return to “normal” and the human race returns to the same fear, prejudices, hatred, and divisions as before.

What amazes me, is through all the diversity in and around the world, the varying languages, customs, religions, races and nationalities, and things that separate the world’s peoples, there is so much that makes us one.

We all breathe the same oxygen produced by our earth and pumped through our lungs. We all have red blood, that life giving fluid pumping through our veins. We all have a heart that beats. Minds to think. Ears, eyes, nose, hands, and fingers to be able to enjoy the sensations all around us. We all have the emotion of fear, the capacity to hate, have prejudices, the ability to trust or distrust those different from ourselves. We all laugh and cry. Feel joy, pain and sorrow. And greater yet, we all experience the emotion of love. So many things that make us different yet so many things that make us one!

Why, or how is it, a heart, a lung, a liver, just a few of the many organs that can be donated and transplanted in an individual a thousand miles away and give a total stranger life? Blood can be taken from one individual and sent, and transfused into another person in a completely different part of the world and give life. The wonder of oneness.

In the Genesis creation account, we are told that the Creator took dust and made human kind, and breathed the breath of life into the human’s nostrils, and the human became a living being.

We were created by Creator God, in the image of the Creator and given the breath of life by the Creator.

When we look at those we consider different than what we perceive as normal, when we begin to fall prey to fears and prejudices that are force fed to us on a daily basis by the various media, and when we begin to see our own attitudes go in a direction we may find disturbing, stop, think for a moment, not about what separates, but about what makes us one!

Even though we may look different, speak different, worship differently, or not at all, even though we are so different in so many ways, we are one! We are one part of one race. The human race.

What would take place in our world if humankind would begin to focus on what unites us instead of the differences and fears that separate us?

Creator God; you have made us one. Grant that I (we) may look at what unites us instead of what divides us. May I (we) rejoice in the fact that I (we) are one with the world. Use me (us) to unite to bring together and never divide, to show your love for all creation in and through my living. Amen

Tuesday, March 1, Written Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

Quite a number of years ago in a church where I was serving, I made a decision that I came to know as The Mistake. The details of The Mistake are relatively unimportant. It had to do with how I (mis)handled a change that needed to be made in the congregation. At the end of the day, however, the substance of the decision was of not that great importance, other than to note it was primarily a case of very bad judgment on my part. The problem with The Mistake was that the memory of it began to haunt me.

When I would look at certain people, even if I had been thinking about something totally different prior to that moment, all of the emotions tied to The Mistake would come flooding back to me in full force. When I tried to make any kind of decisions, I would find myself awash in indecision and uncertainly because I was so insecure in myself as a result of The Mistake. I cried (a little). I regretted (a lot). I wished with my whole heart I had a time machine so I could go back and fix things. I spent a lot of time beating myself up.

One day I poured my heart out to a trusted mentor over lunch. I told her the whole messy story of The Mistake, the consequences of what had happened, and my deep regret over my actions. It felt better to talk about it, but hearing the story coming out of my mouth made me want to go back and strangle my former self.

“You screwed up,” my colleague said. (The better the friend, the blunter their honesty.) “I know,” I answered.

My mentor smiled at me. “Do you remember the story of the conversion of Paul in the scripture?” she asked. “I guess so,” I replied. I wasn’t really in the mood for a Bible lesson. “Imagine the regret Paul must have harbored over his previous life before he was converted. He had literally contributed to the death of another person because of his decisions. That’s a lot of regretful stuff to deal with. At least no one died because of your decision.”

“Is this supposed to be making me feel better?” I interrupted. “Be quiet,” she responded, “I’m not done.”

She went on to remind me of the story from Acts, of Paul’s previous life as a persecutor of Christians, of his powerful conversion experience on the road to Damascus, and of his changed life as a result of encountering Jesus. “Notice,” she said, “what God did in this story. God acknowledges Paul’s mistakes, but calls Paul to use his past experiences to create a better future. God doesn’t let Paul off the hook for his actions, but God also doesn’t allow Paul to wallow in self-pity either. God’s call upon Paul’s life is to be an active learner – to use his regretful past to actively affect the future.”

We sat in silence for a few moments. You know that feeling when you know someone is totally right but you’re just not ready to embrace it yet? It took me a while to feel what my head already knew from this conversation – there is no going back, but there is great value in moving forward.

Do you have a Mistake in your life that holds you back from moving on? Do you live in the emotions of The Mistake rather than finding a way to grow forward in the future? If so, perhaps today is the day to be a little like Paul, to recognize that you can’t go back in your time machine to fix the past, but that you can make the future pretty bright by using your regret to motivate you to action. God’s call upon our lives never ends, even when we get hung up in Mistakes.

Maybe you screwed up too.

Maybe God still has plans for screw-ups like us.

Thursday, March 3, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

In the last several months, our five-year-old son has started asking us questions about ridiculous hypothetical situations all the time. (I looked this up. Apparently it’s a normal, albeit maddening, developmental stage.) The questions range from the scientifically-possible-but-completely-unlikely (“Mom! What would we do if a giant asteroid crushed our house?!) to the absurd (“Mom! What we do if we melted and went down the bathtub drain?!) to the specifically-designed-to-provoke-a-reaction (“Mom! What would you do if I licked the handle of the grocery cart?!”). Unfortunately the last question was not actually a hypothetical situation. Every day is an adventure at our house.

From a developmental perspective, these questions serve a purpose in my son’s life. They help him learn to make sense of his world, to sort the things that are sensible from that which is insensible, to be able to understand limitations and cause-and-effect relationships, and to think through consequences. (Of which there are many when you lick the grocery cart.) My son needs to be able to ask “what if” because it helps him understand his life.

Unfortunately, some of us never grow out of this developmental stage. We spend our whole lives playing the “what if” game, and driving ourselves crazy in the process. “What if I have a huge financial emergency? What if I get sick? What if my family makes the wrong choices? What if this relationship doesn’t work out? What if I’m raising a kid who thinks it’s OK to lick grocery carts?” You would think from the internal dialogue some of us maintain that the world was a terribly dangerous place, fraught with disaster at every turn and filled with unpredictable people and circumstances.

It is certainly true that we could choose to look at life that way. But let’s be honest: it is a choice. We could also choose to look at life as filled with blessings, abundance, and joy. To focus our attention on the good things about our world is not to deny that the tragedies or dangers exist, it is simply to decide we will not allow our lives to be defined by them.

Consider Esther from the Bible. Esther was forced into marriage with the king, and her people, the Hebrews, were being threatened with genocide because of a corrupt and evil adviser to the king. Lots of things about Esther’s life could have led her to be very negative and fearful. “What if my people are all killed? What if the king realizes I’m one of them and I’m killed too? What if I’m left by myself? What if?” But Esther did not choose this path, according to the scripture. She chose to be brave and courageous and to focus her attention on being available to be used as an instrument of God “for such a time as this.” Disaster lurked on every side, but Esther chose to focus on that which was going right in her life – her circumstances, her cunning, and her ability to problem solve. And if you remember the end of the story, she basically single-handedly saved the entire Hebrew people.

So as we continue to ponder this week what it means to live in the moment as a part of healthy religion, I invite you to consider the question: where do my thoughts live? Do they live in the realm of the “what ifs,” as though I was still a small child trying to make sense of the world, or do they live in the present moments to notice the resources and blessings in front of me? Part of living the abundant life to which Jesus called us is to learn to fully embrace and appreciate that which is right in front of us in the moment.

And maybe if we did that, we could catch the licking of the grocery cart before the hypothetical situation becomes reality.

Saturday, March 5, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

Outside of my office window, in the grassy “island” of the church on the other side of the circle driveway, lives a squirrel. It is probably one of the fattest and laziest squirrels I have ever seen. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s going to fall out of the trees, because the branches bend down under its weight. (Do you people feed the squirrel all the time? I can’t ever really figure out why it’s SO fat.) Over time I’ve kind of taken to referring to it as Chester the Church Squirrel. And yes, I’m fully aware that Chester might be a she, but Sally the Church Squirrel just doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well.

Chester’s world seems to be mostly limited to the church yard. Sometimes he ventures up closer to the buildings, and sometimes a little further out toward the street, but generally he sticks right around in the same area. Today, for instance, (it’s Thursday afternoon as I write this), I’ve watched him off and on all day, and he’s barely made it more than a 20 foot radius from where he started. He seems to be happy and fulfilled eating nuts and seeds on the circle drive lawn. The east circle lawn never really strikes me as an incredibly hospitable place, but Chester seems to have made a nice cozy home with all the trimmings out of it.

The key to Chester’s success, as far as I can tell, is that he notices things other creatures would miss. I look out upon the lawn and see brownish grass and bare trees in these last few weeks of winter, but Chester seems to continually find food and shelter. I have walked across that lawn many times and never really noticed anything special about it, but Chester knows every nook and cranny where food is hidden and sustenance is maintained. Chester’s world is small, but filled with far more dynamic complexity than I give it credit for just looking out my office window.

Jesus, I might add, seemed to take Chester’s perspective of life in this world. Consider the lilies of the field, he told his followers, and look how un-worried they are. Think about a mustard seed, he called his disciples, and notice how the whole kingdom of God is contained within it. Jesus noticed the minute details of life hidden in the vastness of the world, drawing attention to seemingly impossible parts of world (“have faith enough to move mountains”) and the extraordinarily mundane (“take care into what kind of soil you plant your seeds”). It’s almost as if Jesus were calling us to see the world as simultaneously more vast than our imagination can even comprehend and at the same time fascinating on its most intricate levels.

I think this dual focus was very intentional on Jesus’ part. Noticing the bigness of the world helps us keep perspective on our lives and remember the world goes on despite our trials and difficulties. Noticing the smallness of the world helps us understand how minute changes can bring huge results, giving us hope and purpose in our lives even in the face of obstacles. I believe Jesus understood that we would constantly be in need of perspective adjustments to keep us focused on that which really mattered in life. Intentionally choosing to see the world around us helps us to stay connected to God in the moment and to embrace what God is doing in our midst each day.

In the 15 minutes or so that it has taken me to write this, Chester has eaten his way across perhaps five feet of space. If I had been moving over that same space, it would have taken me not even two seconds to go that far, and I would likely have noticed nothing whatsoever about my surroundings. Jesus, I think, would have taken Chester’s approach and paid attention to the world in front of him. May we also be tuned into our world today.

Tuesday, March 8, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

“We all need a daily check up from the neck up to avoid ‘stinkin thinkin’ which ultimately leads to hardening of the attitudes.” – Zig Ziglar: American Author, Motivational Speaker, Salesman

Sunday, Pastor Morgan said, “to understand healthy religion, we need to look at what unhealthy religion is.” As Morgan gave a wonderful eye opening, illustration of unhealthy religion, the thought came to me, religion, whether healthy or unhealthy begins with our minds, our attitudes.

So much of the time we develop thoughts, opinions and attitudes in regard to a group of people, or a single person. We develop the same thoughts, opinions and attitudes toward other religious groups or faiths, different or perceived different from ours. And we develop thoughts opinions and attitudes in regard to events taking place in our society that help fuel our thoughts, attitudes and opinions, and even our fears. And to further complicate matters, many of our thoughts, attitudes, opinions, and fears have been ingrained in us from childhood. Whether old ingrained attitudes, or newly developed, one thing is for certain, there is an attitude of “stinkin thinkin” that hurts and is hurting the effectiveness of the Good News of Jesus. And in the process making people miserable.

I wonder; are people turning away from “Religion”, from the Church, and most disturbing from the Good News, because of the way Religion, the Church, the Good News is so misrepresented by those within who have developed “stinkin thinkin”?

Renewal, real life giving, life prospering renewal begins with a change in our minds. A change in our attitudes, and in our opinions. From the positive, healthy change; a life giving, life changing renewal will flow through us, and from us into our society, to bring renewal, restoration and real positive change.

Renewal begins in our minds. I am reminded of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-24. This young man was a product of his thoughts, his opinions and his attitudes. When his thoughts, opinions and attitudes had taken him as low as he could go, he experienced renewal and restoration. However, the renewal and restoration did not begin until he began making changes within his mind and way of thinking. Luke 15:18 “I will get up and go to my father and say to him, I have sinned against heaven and you”. You see the change in thinking, the change in opinion, the change in attitude?

From time to time it is good for everyone, especially those on the Journey of Faith, to take that “check up from the neck up” that Zig Ziglar so often spoke of.

Do I possess any thoughts, which in turn are causing me to develop opinions and attitudes that are not compatible with the Good News of the Love of God as shown through Jesus Christ? Do I possess now, or am I developing thoughts, opinion, or attitudes that have caused or will cause me to display a negative unhealthy religion.

Through my thoughts, opinions, and attitudes am I consistently allowing God through Jesus Christ and His Spirit to remake, renew my thinking, my opinions, my attitudes so that from me flows positive, life giving, life changing, society changing, healthy religion?”

“….be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.” Romans 12:2 CEB

“……let God re-make you so that your whole attitude of mind is changed. Thus you will prove in practice that the will of God’s good, acceptance to him and perfect.” Romans 12:2 J. B. Phillips Translation

Thursday, March 10, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

A favorite television program of I and Anita’s is Flea Market Flip. Two teams of two are sent to a flea market to purchase various items, then renew and or restore those items to their original use or better yet, find a new use and or purpose. Many times it is antique chairs, tables, shelves or other interesting looking items. Other times, items are purchased that appear to be broken, beyond repair or even beyond any use whatsoever. These items are purchased cheap. The cheaper the better; then renewed, restored, and most of the time repurposed. The renewed, and or repurposed items are then sold for a higher price, and of course the team which makes the most profit wins.

So many times we look at ourselves as “antique.” Our time, opportunities, and usefulness are passed. Other times we may look at our lives and see only the bruises, the brokenness brought about by living life. And so many times, individuals will view themselves as beyond any value or use whatsoever.

As I read the Jesus Story as presented in the gospels, one thing stands out, Jesus was all about renewal, and repurposing lives. Lives that were bruised, and even broken. Lives that appeared, beyond their time, or appeared of no use whatsoever. (Time and space do not permit me to list, however, I encourage you to read and see for yourself.)

The same then, is so true now. I have witnessed it so many times in peoples’ lives, and I have witnessed it in my own life. Jesus, through His Spirit, through His presence is still about renewal, restoration, and repurposing.

Regardless of where we are on our life journey, or our faith journey, we can experience renewal and restoration. And yes we can even experience repurposing in our lives. Jesus specializes in the renewal, restoration and repurposing of lives. The key is; we must be honest with ourselves, and open in our mind, as well as our heart, and allow ourselves to be renewed, restored, or even repurposed, through our friend and brother Jesus. With Jesus, there are no “antiques,” for which there is no value, or purpose. There are no bruises or breaks that cannot be mended. There is not one single person who is to the point of not being of any use or value. The power of faith, in Jesus, and in ourselves can and will renew the luster, “the state of quality shinning by reflecting light; glitter, sparkle, or gloss.” *

One of my favorite poems, is The Touch of the Master’s Hand by Myra Brooks. Especially these words of renewal and restoration from the closing lines. “And many a person with life out of tune, and battered and scarred…..is auctioned cheap to a thoughtless crowd, much like an old violin……they are going once—-going twice—they are going—and almost gone! But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd never can quite understand the worth of a soul and the change that comes from the touch of the Master’s hand.”

Prayer
Lord Jesus; You know me. You know my life.  With honesty I open myself to you. Renew, restore and repurpose me. Amen

*from definition Dictionary.com

Saturday, March 12, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

This cannot be happening to me! How I remember this thought playing over and over again in my mind. Nearing my retirement from 34 years of pastoral ministry, I had come to the realization in my mind and in my spirit, the joy, happiness from the inside out, was gone. I was simply traveling my journey of faith on autopilot. I was doing all the “right stuff”. Going to church, leading a church, preaching every Sunday, reading my bible and praying daily, giving my tithe, all the things “good Christians and especially pastors” are supposed to do. Yet, I was tired, frustrated, and a few other adjectives not fit for print. I could not pinpoint time nor place that it had happened. All I knew was, I had given and was giving my best, my heart and conscience were clear and clean, and this was no longer a joy, let alone fun!

As the days and weeks of my final Sunday in pastoral ministry were fast approaching, one lonely, quiet morning, out of part frustration and part desperation, I simply prayed the same words King David prayed as recorded Psalm 51:12 “Return, renew the joy of your salvation to me”. Time passed, and something amazing happened. I began to be directed to new reading materials, and with every page I read; fresh insight and light suddenly began turning on inside my mind. New people were beginning to cross my path with words of encouragement.  On a cold December morning, Anita and I walked through the doors and sat down in an unfamiliar church. For the first time in years, I was in a pew and not a clergy chair. It was then I felt a warm feeling come over me as though arms were wrapped tight around me strengthening my spirit with the words “you are home”! It was that special Sunday my real renewal began. I began to meet new people with friendly smiling faces; strangers, reaching out to Anita and I. I was able to sit back and for the first time in a very, very long time be ministered to. I continued to discover and rediscover books and authors I had long forgotten, ignored or never discovered. I continued to meet new, friendly and exciting people through our new found Community of Faith. Each week anxiously waiting to return to that special place with such warm, special people.

On a day in January, while I was simply driving down the road, the sun seemed to shine a little brighter, the sky was a little more blue and I began to notice the beauty of creation and nature, and, I was humming, “Great is Thy faithfulness O’ God my Father…….all I have needed thy hand has provided…..”. It was then the thought came to me, what a joy, happiness from the inside out, to be traveling this journey of life. How exciting to be on the journey of faith! Following Jesus!

That simple prayer prayed three months prior, had been answered in the affirmative. And answered in ways I never dreamed of. It was people, new people that had been and were being used in a special way to bring renewal to my tired mind and to my dry, thirsty spirit. In my reading, in personal study, it was new, unfamiliar authors and writings that were bringing back the joy of my journey of faith. And a new found community of faith was helping me connect and reconnect in such a refreshing renewing way

Regardless of where you are or how long you’ve been on your journey of faith there may arise a time or times in which you will discover, the joy is gone and you are on autopilot. It is in those times you simply need to pray that simple prayer of “restore, renew the joy”.

You may well find, as I have, the renewal will come in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, through unexpected people at unexpected times. Open your eyes, mind, and heart, to the people around you and the opportunity before you. Perhaps the people and opportunity are there to help bring renewal and restoration to you, to your spirit.

As we travel this journey of faith, may we understand, God may be using us as individuals or as a group to be the power of renewal and restoration for someone. We never know the renewing power that a kind word, a smile, a handshake, or just taking the time to listen has or will have on someone. Perhaps someone you know, or a total stranger you may meet. Who has been placed in your life, to whom you are to be an agent of renewal and restoration?

“The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus. They will burst into bloom and rejoice with joy and singing…..” Isaiah 35:1-2 CEB

One final note; the community of faith to which I refer in this Spirit Note is Countryside United Methodist Church. Thank you friends and family of Countryside. You will never know the special way God used you to bring renewal of joy to myself and Anita. And thank you to Pastor Rick and Pastor Morgan for your openness to the Spirit and your ministry. Countryside is truly a special place of blessing of which it is a joy to be a part.

Tuesday, March 15, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

I once served on a committee that was full of people I didn’t really like all that much. I believed in the work the committee was doing and the organization of which this team was a part, but the individuals involved in the group drove me nuts. One member of the team was forever sending obnoxious emails to everyone and overusing “reply all,” another member felt compelled to tell borderline inappropriate personal stories during meetings, and another member refused to ever participate, sitting in stony silence at every meeting but then getting upset with decisions after the meeting was over. Going to the monthly meetings of this organization felt like running an endurance race every time.

Eventually I began to tune out of the meetings, finding reasons why I couldn’t make it “just this month.” Over time I missed more and more meetings until I decided it was no longer prudent for me to be a part of the committee, and I resigned to make space for someone else to participate. If you had asked me at the time, I would have told you I resigned because “my schedule was too busy and I needed to let go of something,” and, “the meeting schedule just didn’t work for me.”

The truth, however, was that I just didn’t want to be around the individuals involved. I certainly didn’t lack for things to do in my life and I did genuinely have trouble making it to the meetings, but if it had been important enough to me, I would have found the time to make it work. The real reason for my departure, I finally admitted to myself, was that I just simply didn’t want to work at being in relationships with people I found irritating.

I am not proud of that decision. The work this organization was doing was important and meaningful, and my abandoning my position probably caused an unnecessary distraction and hassle for those involved as they had to take over my workload. I share that story because it is a reminder to me that relationships with others can be hard and difficult and messy, but they are worth investing in.

True, some relationships are abusive or harmful or denigrating, and those relationships need to be ended. But many of us will encounter those who are not necessarily harmful to us, but who simply irritate us to no end, and who would be easier to just abandon. In the scripture, the disciples often squabbled with each other, engaging in petty disputes and getting on each others’ nerves. I think it’s fair to assume they had moments when someone stormed off in a huff because it would be easier to end the relationship than deal with the irritating person on the other end.

Jesus, however, never engaged this way with the disciples. When they brought up pettiness, he offered grace. When they bickered, he sometimes called them to task, but always offered forgiveness and love on the other side of the discussion. He kept engaging with them, over and over again even when he was frustrated with their unwillingness to understand or their constant need to focus on the wrong things. Jesus called the disciples into meaningful relationships with himself and with each other, and he didn’t take “it’s too hard,” for an answer.

I bet there is someone in your life right now who irritates you or rubs you the wrong way. Maybe your inclination is to abandon that relationship because not being there would be so much easier than being in and working at modeling healthy interaction. I encourage you this day, however, not to take that easy path. I regret my decision to leave my team and abandon its important work just because messy relationships are hard. Instead, take the Jesus model, looking for the good in the individuals and seeking to find points of commonality and focus between them. It’s the road less traveled, but arguably much more meaningful.

Relationship are hard, but Jesus taught us they are worth it.

Thursday, March 17, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I’m sure many of you are familiar with the legends of the religious origins of St. Patrick’s Day, with St. Patrick being a missionary to Ireland, eventually becoming Ireland’s foremost patron saint. The veracity of these legends is highly debatable, considering that multiple stories about St. Patrick exist, and many of the tales conflict with one another about times, places, and content.

I think part of the reason the story of St. Patrick has continued to resonate with people throughout history even despite its iffy nature (aside from the holiday’s major focus on drinking, which is a holdover from being a “break” from the Lenten discipline of refraining from alcohol), is because the story of St. Patrick is one which emphasizes the importance of relationships. Although St. Patrick has been criticized for being a part of the aggressive measures which forced the Christian religion upon whole groups of people to “evangelize” them, he is also remembered as being a person of deep and abiding faith who sincerely cared for others and sought to develop relationships with many different kinds of people.

Consider with me for a moment what this means for us. According to legend, St. Patrick spent so much time investing in relationships with others that we are still celebrating his life some 1,500 years after his death. Imagine if you were tasked with trying to be a person who so cared for others that your love and devotion would still be remembered and celebrated 1,500 years later.

Too far out there to stretch your imagination?

OK, try this instead. Imagine that you are being called today, right this very moment, to touch someone else’s life in such a way that they will remember this interaction a year from now. Imagine that it was up to you to invest that in relationship in such a way that you will make an impact and a difference in someone else’s life. That’s really all St. Patrick did – a series of meaningful interactions over the course of a lifetime of caring about others.

And really, that’s basically what Jesus’ ministry was all about as well. He sometimes talked about humanity as a whole, but often his most meaningful interactions with others happened when he was interacting with them one on one. He spoke to “invisible” people. He made time to heal people society had cast aside. He stopped to observe the poor, the forgotten, the marginalized and overlooked. He formed a lifetime of ministry by one interaction at a time, touching one life on one day in one way.

Could you do that today? Could you go out of your way to invest in a relationship in a meaningful way, to model your life after Christ’s? What if you sent a handwritten letter to someone in your life, or took someone who was hurting or struggling out for coffee? What if you practiced a random act of kindness or went out of your way to meet someone very different from yourself? There are a million ways God might be calling us to care for others, if only we are willing to walk through life with open eyes and willing hearts.

That’s what the legend says St. Patrick did. That’s what scripture tells us Jesus did. It might be what God is calling us to do today. Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Go make a difference in someone’s life.

Saturday, March 19, Written by Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith

Easter egg hunting is in full force at our house right now. My family has always had a tradition of dying eggs early and then hiding and hunting them over and over and over until Easter, and I am carrying on that practice with my own son as he is becoming an expert egg hunter.

Every year, egg hunting follows a similar pattern. The first few times I hide them, I put them in relatively obvious places. The next time, they’re still obvious, but some of the eggs require a little more thought to find them. Every round we carry on, growing a little more complicated each time. By the time Easter rolls around, eggs will be hidden in the backs of cabinets, down the couch cushions, and inside other egg cartons in the refrigerator. Since my son is only five, there will be limits to the complexity, but I fully expect that within the next few years I will begin hiding eggs all around the city, complete with complicated riddles he must solve in order to hunt them down. My own mother did that astoundingly well and I aim to carry on her profound love of stumping her children.

I think of this process of increasing complexity in our annual egg hunting as an outgrowth of the fact that my relationship with my son will also grow more and more complex as he ages and matures. Almost all children go through this process of learning and growing over their lives, and our relationships as parents follow suit. This is natural and normal and a reflection of the circle of life that raises up each new generation of people.

I find it interesting, then, that we have a tendency to assume that while our relationships with others will grow increasingly complex over the course of our lives, our relationship with God remains static. Too many disciples of Jesus have internalized the idea that there is no space within our relationship with God for things like anger, doubt, questioning, or frustration. We assume that to have any of these feelings is a sign of a deficiency within our faith walk. But these kinds of emotions are natural in our human relationships as we grow and learn about ourselves and each other. Why would we assume our relationship with God would be devoid of such feelings?

As we prepare to walk through this journey of Holy Week, I am reminded of the journey the disciples walked with Jesus, learning about themselves and “growing up” in the complexity of their understanding of their relationship with God. In the beginning their questions were relatively simple and straightforward, but by the time they found themselves in an upper room, huddled together trying to understand what had just happened as they witnessed the resurrected Jesus, their words reveal a greater depth of understanding, a willingness to be honest about their frustrations and needs, and a deeper appreciation of the difficulty of the journey.

Before we enter Holy Week this year, I invite us all to examine the state of our relationship with God right now. Is it hovering at the beginning stages, when the questions are easy and obvious? Or is it being authentic about the struggles and misunderstandings we really wrestle with, in being honest with God? If the Easter eggs were always easy to find, we would never grow in our ability to learn. I believe in a God who desires a deep and authentic relationship with each of us, and that requires us to become a little more complex each day.

Tuesday, March 22, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

“Today, wherever I go and whenever I meet someone who follows a different religion, I deeply admire their practice and sincerely respect their tradition.” – The Dalai Lama

In our twenty first century world, and in our twenty first century nation, we are a living, breathing, interactive part of a pluralistic society. We see many nationalities, many cultures, and many religions and expressions of faith. To some this is viewed with a xenophobic, fear, bigotry, prejudice, and fundamentalism. To others, this is welcomed as an opportunity to open their eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to a new and fresh understanding of the world and people around them. Opportunity to gain a new understanding, a new insight, a new tolerance, and to truly express God’s love shining through them to all His world and humanity.

To gain a biblical and spiritual insight and example, we can look at The Acts of The Apostles 17:22-34. The Apostle Paul is in the great, ancient city of Athens. Athens, the center of diverse philosophical thought, culture, and diverse religions. Through a series of events, Paul finds himself at the center of a religious, and philosophical council of scholars, leaders, and civic authorities. Paul could have “reacted” as some, and approached this opportunity with an arrogant, closed, dogmatic, fundamental mind and approach, or he could seek a positive means to a positive solution. As we read the story we see Paul choosing the positive means to a positive solution. We see Paul approach this council, with respect, humility, and openness.

He reasoned with them. He did not begin with an argumentative approach, rather he approached them with openness and reason. He showed them respect and complimented them on their faith, religions, and traditions. He found a common ground with them. With reason, respect, humility, and openness he shared with them the Good News of the living, loving God.

Beginning with verse 32, after hearing Paul, some ridiculed him, yet others were open to him. “We’ll hear from you about this again” verse 32b. In the closing verses we see some joining Paul and becoming leaders in the early church.

I cannot help but wonder, what would have been the outcome if Paul had approached the council, or, council approached him with closed ears, closed minds and closed hearts? I am sure the outcome would not have been a positive one.

In the pluralistic world we live, we have a choice. One choice is to close our ears, eyes, hearts and minds, and plunge headlong into the destructive attitudes of xenophobic hate, prejudice, bigotry and fundamentalist traditions. Or, we can take the choice of Paul in our story from Acts. We can approach people from different cultures, customs, lifestyles, faiths and religions, with respect, humility and openness. With a complementing, mind, spirit and attitude of openness, focus on our common ground, and with love and compassion share with them. Also, with humility, respect, and openness, we can seek to receive from them that which will serve to enlighten us with fresh insight on our faith journey as well as life journey. “Everyman is my superior in that I may learn from him.”  Thomas Carlyle

Creator God, it is in you we live, move and exist. We are all your offspring. Make me a vessel that is one of openness, humility, compassion, respect, and sharing. Grant that I will not seek so much to teach as to learn from those you place in my life. Use me to bring respect, openness unity and healing to this wonderful world of diversity in which you have placed me to live. In the name of the ultimate example of respect, humility and openness, Jesus Christ I pray. Amen.

Thursday, March 24, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

“Later, when Jesus was sitting at dinner in Levi’s house, a large number of tax-collectors and disreputable folk came in and joined him and his disciples. For there were many such people among his followers. When the scribes who were Pharisees saw him eating in the company of tax-collectors and outsiders they remarked to his disciples, ‘So he eats with tax collectors and sinners!'” – Mark 2:15-16, J B Phillips New Testament in Modern English

Throughout the story of Jesus, one thing stands out, Jesus was not a popular person or celebrity among the “religious” of the day. Jesus was the ultimate outsider. Or so the Jerusalem Evangelical Right thought. He spoke of being the Son Of God, he challenged their teaching, their interpretation of scripture. He challenged their “law” their rules and regulations for righteousness which no man or woman were able to realistically follow, not even themselves.

If that was not enough, what really bugged them, what rocked their world was that Jesus had the nerve to openly associate with those whom the “religious” had disenfranchised. He had the nerve to sit down and break bread with tax-collectors, and sinners! Now I don’t know if they were sinners, however if the Pharisees said they were sinners, they were sinners. That was one of if not the greatest complaint they had with Jesus. And what was worse, Jesus did not just sit and break bread with tax-collectors and sinners, he invited them to follow him, to hang out with him, to travel from town to town with him, to walk with him to be his friend.

I often wonder if Jesus were walking the earth today in human, bodily form, who would the “religious” of today criticize him for associating with? I can just hear it, CNN Breaking News, Fox News Happening Now, “the spiritual teacher Jesus totally angered Christian leaders today for inviting those from the LGBT community to follow him. He further angered the Christian Community leaders today for agreeing to teach at a Mosque in Washington D.C. This is not the first time Jesus has incurred the wrath of the religious leaders, last week he challenged many of their laws they were backing in the name of Christianity. Jesus told them he didn’t appreciate them using his name for their gain.” Now as ridiculous as this may sound or seem, in essence, this is the kind of mentality and criticism Jesus was subjected to while he lived and walked this earth in human form two thousand years ago.

I often wonder, If Jesus were walking the earth in human form today, would I criticize him for associating with a specific group? Would you criticize him for associating with a specific group or groups? This is an eye opening, thought provoking question I (we) must ask ourselves.

In the Gospel Story, Jesus responded to the Pharisees, the same way I believe he would respond to us today. “I did not come to invite the righteous, but the sinner, the flawed.”

The Pharisees, as we sometimes do, totally missed the point. I believe Jesus was saying, there is no person that is flawless, without sin or fault. All humanity is flawed in some way, shape or form. It is the flawed, the imperfect to whom Jesus opens his arms, palms wide open and says “Come to me, learn from me, I will welcome you unconditionally.”

The Jesus I follow, is the Jesus who opened himself to all, regardless of where they had been or where they were. Regardless of what society or the “religious” thought of them. Jesus, with hands wide open and arms outstretched, welcomed all! Jesus throughout the Gospel Story gave assurance there was room, a place and purpose for all humanity.

The Jesus we should imitate, follow and share, is the Jesus of unconditional openness, love, compassion, humility and respect. This is what will bring unity, and wholeness to our world, and our community, and to our inner circle.

Dear Jesus,
Infuse me with your light and Spirit, that I will be an exact reflection of you. Open, loving, compassionate, humble and respectful and welcoming to all unconditionally.

Saturday, March 26, Written by Rev. Rick Hodge

“I was moving around in the world and begun to realize how beautifully God was everywhere: in nature and in my neighborhood, in considering the stars and by seeking my roots. It took me five decades to figure it out, but I finally understood. The church is not the only sacred space; the world is profoundly sacred as well.” – Diana Butler Bass; Grounded: Finding God In The World; A Spiritual Revolution

I saw God yesterday! I saw him today! And I know I am sure to see him tomorrow! I have seen him over and over, too many times to count over the past several years. I have seen him in a beautiful sunrise as well as a peaceful sunset. I have heard him speak in a gentle breeze while sitting and relaxing on my patio. I have heard him speak in the strong sweeping winds as well.

I have experienced God in the smell of fresh mown grass, the beauty of flowers, and trees. I have witnessed his presence while gazing at the grandeur of a mountain range. I have relaxed in his presence while standing on the beach watching the waves roll in. I have joined with the birds singing their praises to him in the early morning hours. I have seen God in the innocent face of a child, an adoring, loving mother and father gazing intently at the precious life. I have seen God in the smiles of others, as well as in their kindnesses. So many places and so many ways I have seen, or experienced God, and will see and experience him.

I know you have seen him and experienced him too! You might not have noticed, you may not have realized it, but you have, and you will see and experience God.

So many times our concentration is on seeing or experiencing God when we enter a worship setting. And it is easy to do so, surrounded by beautiful music, stained glass, reading of scripture, and the spoken word.

As we live our daily lives, we so many times allow the noises, the worries of life, and the situations and circumstance around us to close our eyes, ears and minds to the fact God is all around us.

We see him and experience him in nature, in our interpersonal relationships, in our meeting total strangers. And we must be conscience of the fact we see God in the face of the hurting, the lonely, homeless, the disenfranchised as well.

How do we respond when we see God? How have we responded? How will we respond?

Will we open our minds, and hearts with praise, love, compassion, and humility? This past week, in the Spirit Notes, we have been discussing openness. Openness begins when we daily, pause, meditate on the world around us, and open our hearts and minds to the reality and beauty of the presence God all around us in so many ways and in so many people as well.

In his book, Speaking Christian, the late Marcus Borg gives the beautiful illustration of the constant sacred presence of God. “We are in God as fish are in water. The water is all around; fish move within the water, live in the water, have their being in the water. The water is not separate from the fish—-and yet the water is more than the fish. So also God is not a separate being from the universe—even as God includes the universe.” – Marcus Borg; Speaking Christian; God as Sacred Presence.

Open our eyes, our ears, our hearts our minds. See God, experience God and respond to God every day.

“In fact God isn’t far away from any of us. In God we live, move and exist” – Acts 17:27b-28a