Trump, America about to deny Jesus

Deuteronomy 10:18-19 – “For the Lord your God…loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”


Donald Trump is likely going to sign an executive order tomorrow banning child refugees from Syria from entering the United States. Unlike his bans on other nationd that will last 100 days, his ban on Syrians is indefinite, a.k.a. permanent.

This means the families that are in the process of adopting parent-less Syrian children will not be allowed to proceed with their adoption. This means that Christian organizations that relocate child refugees to families in the United States, like Samaritan’s Purse and World Relief, will no longer be able to do their work. These children will likely die.

There is a lot of ambiguity in the Bible. Even contradictions. But the Bible’s stance on welcoming immigrants is clear.  There are more than 50 references in the Bible regarding “aliens,” “immigrants,” “foreigners” or “strangers.”
Remember, baby Jesus himself was a Middle Eastern refugee. And throughout his life, he was very clear on how we should treat refugees. In every instance Jesus comes across the downtrodden, he welcomes them.

His expectations of us in dealing with refugees is clear in Matthew 25: 34-46. This is the well-known passage where Jesus tells us that the key to pleasing God is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. In verse 35 he tells us to “invite in the stranger.” Here, it’s important to note that Matthew was written in Greek, and the original word for stranger was “Xenos,” which can be translated to English as “immigrant,” “foreigner” or “stranger.”

Donald Trump is going to sign an executive order denying refugees tomorrow. And in the process, our nation will be denying Jesus.

Quietly praying

Originally published on http://www.oconeestreetumc.com on March 4, 2016 as part of a Lenten Devotional series.

by Joe Dennis

Matthew 6:5-6
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

In this politically-charged season, as some of our candidates flaunt their Christianity by using public prayer in their political outings, I am often reminded of something a political science professor once told me: “If you have to keep saying you’re running a ‘grassroots campaign,’ then it is likely not a ‘grassroots campaign.’ Likewise, I often wonder about our politicians who flaunt their Christianity.

Being educated in Catholic schools from kindergarten to 12th grade, prayer was a daily, mandatory part of the school day. Students would recite the same rote prayers every day, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. I’m sure they were trying to instill good, Christian (and patriotic) habits in us. It didn’t work for me. Immediately after graduation and through my early adulthood, I abandoned prayer.

When Carla and I discovered Oconee Street UMC in 2001, getting back to the weekly habit of going to church was easy for me. Prayer proved much more difficult. It was during the aftermath of 9/11, and public prayer was becoming commonplace. But just like all those Catholic school days, the prayers felt empty to me.

Then I stumbled upon this verse, and it made complete sense. In order for prayer to work, I need to have a one-on-one connection with God. I need the silence to organize my thoughts to communicate with God. I need to be alone in the presence of God, so God can reach me.

If I flaunt my Christianity, my reward is Earthly: as people around me hear my prayers, they will praise me for being such a good Christian. But if I pray by myself in private, God is hearing my prayers, and my reward is Heavenly.

I’d much prefer the latter.

Prayer: God, thank you for the one-on-one time you give me every time I pray. Amen.

I Saw Jesus Today, but I Ignored Him

I Saw Jesus Today
by Joe Dennis

Originally published on http://www.oconeestreetumc.com on March 16, 2016 as part of a Lenten Devotional series.

Matthew 25:34-40 (NIV)
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

I saw Jesus today, but I ignored him. If I made eye contact, I would be compelled to help. But I just didn’t have time today. I was running errands. Besides, Jesus is always there — on the corner of Hawthorne and Broad — looking for some help. I didn’t have cash, anyway. I’m sure someone else helped him. I will help Jesus next time.

Jesus visited me today, but I ignored his concern. I could tell something was wrong, and if I asked how he was doing, I would be compelled to listen. But I just didn’t have time today. I had so much work to do — I was running behind. Besides, Jesus can talk to other people about his problems. That’s not my job, anyway. I’m sure someone else listened to him. I will listen to Jesus next time.

Jesus called me today, but I ignored the call. I knew the conversation would last a long time. If I answered, I would be compelled to engage in a conversation. But I just didn’t have time today. I just finished working a 12-hour day and I needed the time to decompress. Besides, Jesus calls me every day looking to talk. My phone battery was low, anyway. I’m sure she was able to talk to someone else. I will talk to Jesus next time.

I received a message from Jesus today, but I ignored it. The notification popped up on my phone, but I never opened the message. I knew the message would be long and filled with emotional despair. If I opened the message, I would be compelled to write back. But I just didn’t have time today. I’ve been looking forward to watching this movie for months. Besides, Jesus frequently writes me. I wasn’t at my computer, anyway. I’m sure someone else responded. I will write Jesus next time.

Prayer: Jesus, even though you are always reaching out to me, I am constantly ignoring you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.

Breathe in, breathe out: meditate

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

by Joe Dennis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New sanctuary dedicated in Aug. 30 ceremony

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

Originally published Aug. 30, 2015 on http://www.oconeestreetumc.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God is always there

by Joe Dennis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then that text came.

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

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

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

Oconee Street UMC to worship at Tuckston UMC

Originally published on www.rebuildoconeestreetumc.org on May 3, 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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