A Note from Jessie, Covenant Newsletters – April 2019

Have you ever engaged in Spiritual Direction with Anne Dobbs? Nashville people, you should. She leads something called People at Rest here at First Pres, which ironically I have never attended because my schedule has always felt “too packed for rest.” In fact, the very notion that I am too busy to carve out intentional time for repose is a cyclical challenge so many of us face. How can we justify blocking off time… to do nothing? What about kids, sporting events, family outings, birthday parties, work, errands, social gatherings, you name it? We desperately crave a break from being busy, but we are utterly unwilling to prioritize or commit to it.

It was not until Josh Rodriguez suggested I book an individual appointment with Anne Dobbs for Spiritual Direction that I followed through with this endeavor. And wow, I am so glad I did.

If you do not know Anne, she has bright blue eyes that look as serene as a spring morning and a warm, welcoming presence. As we sat on her sun porch with natural light pouring in from her garden, I felt myself relax. She explained to me that part of her passion is helping people slow down, open their hearts, and move closer in relationship to God. She invited me to imagine sitting down to tea with Jesus to spend moments of connection with him. My first thought was, why have I never done this before?

Have you ever imagined such a moment? Humbly sitting down, taking a breath, and drinking some warm tea in fellowship with Jesus? What thoughts and emotions does that image conjure up for you? What would you want to ask or say or hear?

As we continued talking, Anne asked me another poignant question that called big tears immediately to the rims of my eyes. “Jessie,” she said, “imagine that your little girl self is sitting on your knee right now. What if you could look into her small face…What would you say to her? What would you want that little girl to hear?”

Whoa. Emotional City.

Her probing questions in harmony with each other shot straight to a nerve that has clearly been latent inside me for far too long. In essence, her simple yet profound questions helped me powerfully connect with my inner self as well as my faith. And the tears came rolling down.

What am I longing to hear from Jesus, and what would I love to tell my child self? It is ultimately one and the same: You are enough, and you are loved.

Lord, help me be still in the midst of life’s chaos to hear those comforting words. Help me slow down enough to spend quality time with you each day. Help me look to you for grace and affirmation and redemption instead of foolishly seeking it anywhere else. And Lord, help any tired eyes or over-scheduled minds that  read these meager words feel called into your calming respite and feel invited toward your deep, life-giving well of love and peace. Amen.

A Note from Josh – College & Center Newsletters, April 2019

How much do you talk about Jesus? A lot? Not at all? Who do you talk to Jesus about? Why do you talk about Jesus? Why do you not talk about Jesus? Jesus can be a tenuous topic to discuss, probably because Jesus isn’t meant to just be a topic of discussion.

We studied John 3 a couple weeks ago in our mid-week Bible study. The chapter has a chiastic structure, making verse 11 the major theme of the chapter. “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.” We ask a lot of questions during our time together, but we always end with the question, “If we took this text seriously, how would we live differently tomorrow?” The group agreed, if we took these words seriously, we’d talk about Jesus more. Then, almost immediately, we began to preface that with how sensitive we need to be when we talk about Jesus, and how much we should have a relationship with someone before we talk about Jesus, and how we need to avoid being overbearing, and how really we just need to live like Jesus lived. Someone even cited St. Francis of Assisi saying, “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.”

I shared two thoughts in the moment and have a third after reflecting upon our time together:

  1. I told the person immediately, I disagree with the quote attributed to St. Francis. I do not believe you can preach the gospel with only your actions. The gospel has more to offer than our actions.
  2. I noticed that we all wanted to draw a line in the sand and say, “We need to be careful about crossing that line.” I said, “In the Presbyterian church, and in my experience of most churches, all of us are so far from the line, we could afford to take a step or two closer before we even got close to oversharing our faith in Jesus.
  3. I didn’t think of this one then, but it occurred to me now. When people quote St. Francis of Assisi, they typically describe the sentiment as, “We should be nice and happy until someone notices, and asks us, ‘Why are you so nice and so happy?'” Then we can say, (if we so dare) “because we have faith in Jesus.” But my sense is that St. Francis, a man who started the Franciscan Order and who was known for devoting his life to poverty, was probably thinking more along the lines of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, “love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you.” I don’t think Mr. Assisi just wanted us to be a good bit nicer than everyone else. Jesus was so much more than nice.

My Spanish tutor told me, “When you talk to someone in Spanish, use one or two more words than you are comfortable. Push yourself, and see what it’s like to try to use new words.” I think the same thing can be said about our faith. When talking about Jesus, try using one or two more words than you are comfortable. Push yourself, and see what it’s like to try new words. Amen? Amen.

A Note from Josh – College & Center Newsletters, March 2019

I just read a book about sex. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran minister out of Denver wrote the book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. In the book she addresses a spectrum of topics from purity and sex ethics, all the way to abortion. The book did not evoke mild emotion.

Nadia summarizes the book with these words, “Here’s what this book is. It is a DNA test of our own harm, picking our arms, drawing blood, and showing us where we came from so that we know how to step toward something new. It offers layers of stories and voices and perspectives and history and poetry and scripture. Like a human body, it has curves.”

Sex is complicated for people. For youth, young adults, and even older adults. It is helpful to have someone take on the audacious task of talking about the different topics openly, because to be honest, the church isn’t the first place people think of to talk about sex. I don’t think Nadia was right about everything she said, but here are a couple points I thought were worth sharing.

The World Health Organization’s definition of sexual health puts forth two defining characteristics for a sexual ethic, consent and mutuality. But Nadia doesn’t stop with only these two characteristics. She goes on to say, “A Christian sexual ethic must offer more than this.” She pushes for not just an ethic that rests upon the absence of bad behavior, but for sexual flourishing. Nadia suggests bringing concern to consent and mutuality, saying, “A sexual ethic that includes concern means seeing someone as a whole person and not just a willing body.”

Nadia goes on to name that in the church’s pursuit of holiness, we settled for purity. She says, “But no matter how much we strive for purity in our minds, bodies, spirits, or ideologies, purity is not the same as holiness. It’s just easier to define what is pure than what is holy, so we pretend they are interchangeable.” She expounds by saying purity is also easier to regulate than holiness. She names the honorable pursuit of desiring to be holy, but acknowledges somewhere in the process the church has stopped short. She says, “the desire to live a holy life that is pleasing to God is understandable, but this desire is also fraught with pitfalls.” She names a necessary distinction, “holiness is about union with, and purity is about separation from.”

Before I came to First Pres Nashville, I had only worked with youth – kids in either middle school or high school. It is pretty easy to tell them to simply not have sex. Some of them didn’t listen, but some did. When I started working with young adults, people from ages 10-30, the conversation got a little more complicated. I remember talking with one young adult when they asked, “Am I supposed to just keep doing what they told me in youth group? I’m in my mid-thirties! It just seems juvenile.” Another young adult brought the conversation up, but without ever really addressing sex. They said, “We didn’t really want to compromise our values, but we really couldn’t afford to live in two separate apartments, so we moved in together.” The conversation is as much about finances and human development as it is about sex.

A friend asked me, “Is this a conversation the church is capable of having?” I’m not sure the answer to that question, but I want to answer yes.

The conversation is complicated and can be awkward, but I don’t want people to believe the church has nothing to offer in contributing to humanity’s sexual flourishing. I can’t promise answers, but I will always have the necessary conversation. Because ultimately, it would seem odd that God created such a wonderful thing, only for us to completely avoid the topic. Amen? Amen.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, March 2019

“Breathe and Be Your Best”

This was the motto my family created before embarking on our first trip to Disney World last week. In addition to the planning and packing that such a venture mandates, we prepared for this milestone vacation with setting our expectations. We hoped there would be a plethora of spectacular moments, but we were realistic enough to  expect challenging moments, as well, when we would need to take deep breaths and recenter.

Crowds? Breathe. Long lines? Breathe and Be. Children not eating their $10 hotdogs? Breathe and Be Your Best.

But do you know what was truly amazing? Our motto . . . worked?! In the midst of the crowds and lines and sugar crashes, we held each other accountable to lean into our pledge, together.

It is funny looking back because Steele and I came up with that motto mainly with our 5 year old and 7 year old in mind, thinking they would be the ones who needed the most coaching after fatigue and overstimulation swept through their little bodies. And honestly, there were times when we certainly needed to remind them to use a kinder tone of voice or be more patient or please for the love stop swinging on the rope divider while waiting for Space Mountain. But the commitment to breathing and being our best encouraged us as parents far more than we anticipated. It is astounding how quickly we point out the misbehavior in others (especially in our little ones) when really we are the ones in most dire need of attitude adjustments.

So there we were. For four days, Steele and I committed to breathing in all of the magic that swirled around in our star-struck children’s eyes, and we followed through with breathing out all of our selfish motivations, petty annoyances, and stubborn desires for control. And miraculously, in the absence of our own egocentrism, unbridled joy rose right to the surface. Gratitude blossomed in our hearts. Our minds opened to wonder, our bodies felt free to dance in the present moment with the street performers and our carefree children.

A week later, we are still riding on a high from our special time together, and I already know that I will be peeking back into that treasure trove of precious memories for years to come. And it makes me ponder what it would be like if I held myself to this high standard of patience in my everyday life. What if I did not reserve my most gracious self for special events but continued doling out grace in bucket-loads to those around me? What if I took a breath of prayer before reacting out of annoyance? What if I looked first to my own plank before trying to remove another’s, and in that way led by a more humble example? Perhaps I would be on step closer to the approach the apostle outlines in 1 Peter 5:2-3:

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

An image of my children happily dancing alongside Peter Pan’s Lost Boys in the midday Disney parade comes back to my mind now. “We’re following the leader, the leader, the leader” they all sang together.

It begs the question . . . for the flock God has gifted us in this life, what kind of leaders do we want to breathe and be?

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, February 2019

Am I correct in assuming that you have never heard of the Valentine Possum? Wild guess, but I am thinking that I am likely alone in claiming a marsupial as a beloved bearer of valentine cards and holiday cheer . . . Well, not totally alone. When I was a young child, my mom was always coming up with quirky, off-the-wall ways to celebrate holidays with my big sister, Annie, and me. Each holiday presented a new creative platform from which she could delight her daughters by letting her creative whimsy fly freely. For instance, my mom spent years collecting “Famous Rabbit” figurines (think Bugs Bunny, Peter Rabbit, the March Hare . . . you name it) that she would proudly display as a growing centerpiece every Easter, in addition to our Cross, flowers, and pastel eggs. It was a conversation starter for those who visited our house in springtime, to say the least, and you can bet that we were the only family in Richmond, VA, who had a giant Roger Rabbit statuette on our Easter Sunday table.

Reminiscing about these silly memories stirs up emotion and loads of gratitude for the woman who took the time to be silly with us. And the most delightful revelation was when I realized these traditions were not contained to childhood or limited to only those living within the cozy walls of my mom’s little home. No, the Valentine Possum did not lose my scent after I traveled off to college. Without fail, I would receive a package in the Sewanee student post office every February, with a return address from – yep – the Valentine Possum. Perhaps the most embarrassing package from the good ol’ VP was several years after Steele and I were married. By that point Steele was well acquainted with my family’s unusual traditions, of course, but our new neighbors were not. And when the aging possum accidentally wrote the wrong address on the package, my neighbors were rather confused and more than a little disturbed to discover that inside a beautifully wrapped package was a large, decidedly unattractive puppet of a very lifelike-looking possum. After finally figuring out who the intended recipients were, our neighbors cautiously knocked on our door, holding the package as far away as possible from their chests, a shock of gray faux fur emerging from the seams. Oh, how Steele, my mom, and I laughed about that mishap.

So what in the world does my mom’s wacky invention of the Valentine Possum have to do with God? Well, kind of a lot if you think about it. Love, for starters. God loves us so fully, so unabashedly, so determinedly, and so steadfastly that we never have to wonder where He is. God never loses our scent. He is always showing up, always surprising us with His goodness and steadfastness. God’s love makes us feel special and known, and it inspires us to love others well, too.

And oh the joy that follows that kind of unconditional love. It is a love worth celebrating, to be sure. Happy Valentine’s Day to all! May we each strive to love each other in a life-giving sort of way.

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lines in God, and God in them. (1 John 4:16)

A Note from Josh – College & Center Newsletters, February 2019

Ian Cron said some things at the Relationship Seminar earlier this month that have been messing with me. He said, “Understanding is love’s other name.” He went on to explain that if we want to love others well, we need to understand them. Understanding another person is not easy. It requires a tremendous amount of patience and compassion. There are a lot of people in this world I want to love well; my wife, my children, my friends, and my community. That is going to require a whole lot of understanding. Ian also asked the question, “How are you going to love another well if you do not know their wounds, or how, when, and why they suffer?” That is a heavy question. An answer to that question is going to require a lot of brain, body, and heart power.

These words are messing with me, not just because of what they will require of me to take them seriously in my relationships with those I love, but also because of what it means to think about them in how God chose to be in relationship with creation. The incarnation of Jesus can be hard to understand, but something about Ian’s words made sense of Jesus for me. God wanted to love creation well, and in doing so, gave everything in Jesus. The patience and compassion, desire to know our wounds, and the how, when, and why we suffer are not foreign to God. The incarnation testifies to God’s willingness to be patient and compassionate. The incarnation testifies that God put a lot of brain, body, and heart power into loving us. Ian’s words tasked me with loving people well, but they also made some sense of God’s love for me, and that is good news. Amen? Amen.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, January 2019

Here we are again.

We are standing at the tippy top of a glossy blank calendar year. January unfurls before us like a brand new piece of college ruled notebook paper. Waiting. It feels as daunting as it does exciting.

If November is for focusing on what we are thankful for in our lives, and December is for celebrating the miraculous birth of Christ who breathes light and love and salvation into our lives, then January must be for putting our gratitude and gifts into action. We ask ourselves, what will we do this year with the abundance we have been given?

In my estimation, there is something endearingly admirable, if not eye-rollingly cliché, about the human inclination toward making New Year’s resolutions. Yes, most of us know that we will likely make empty promises to be healthier, kinder, and more efficient versions of ourselves; and yes, most of those promises will take shape and pass as easily as the clouds. But isn’t there something inspiring about the universality of resolutions? That so many people in so many corners of the world readily acknowledge that there is room for growth and improvement? That as soon as the year turns and we are given a clean slate, the earth seems to swell under our feet and urge us toward betterment? To me, even that mass, shared awareness is inspiring in its own right: first, because it means we are not alone in our utterly imperfect state, and second, because it points to our collective souls’ yearning for something more meaningful, perhaps more holy, than before. We can all do a little better, can’t we?

To resolve to do something is to make a firm decision toward action. Moreover, to resolve something is to find a solution. What solutions and actions am I seeking this year? Well, a lot of them have to do with the greatest gifts I have in my life, and those are my relationships with the precious people God has entrusted me to love well. What treasures they are. This year, I want to be more present with my children, more encouraging with my mother and sister, and more steadfast in the friendships that are life-giving. And the whispered truth here is that each of those resolutions must start with me. Self-reflection is the starting point for self-awareness, and the jumping off point for self-improvement. God created us in His image as complex, dynamic, and contemplative beings. Thus, we are not meant to float through life passively, but rather to dig in with both hands and wrestle with the roots of whom God created us to be. And then try a little more earnestly to do those roots justice.

John Calvin once said that “without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.” These wise words have become the tagline for our church’s upcoming “Rooted in Christ: Relationship Seminar” on the evening of Friday, February 1st with Enneagram expert and insightful Christian counselor, Ian Cron. I know that I, for one, can think of no better way to start my renewed path toward self-improvement in 2019 than with taking an honest inventory of my growing edges through this guided self-reflection. Yes, I resolve to honor my treasured relationships this year by rolling up my sleeves and putting in the intentional time for personal work to be my most loving, present, encouraging, steadfast self.

Won’t you join me? After all, we are all in this holy work together.

A Note from Josh – College & Center Newsletters, January 2019

When I was a child, my grandmother had the VHS movie at her house, We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story. To my delight, the movie has made its way to Netflix! The movie is about a scientist, Captain Neweyes, who feeds the dinosaurs “brain grain” turning them into smart, fun-loving dinosaurs, with the purpose of going to the Museum of Natural History so that children in the modern era can enjoy their presence. But he warns the dinosaurs to avoid his brother, Screweyes, a mad scientist who wants to control dinosaurs for his circus. Of course, the conflict of the story is that Screweyes gets ahold of the dinosaurs and turns them back into their unintelligent, scary dinosaur selves. However, in their trek to find the museum the dinosaurs have befriended a few children who try to rescue the dinosaurs from ol’ Screweyes. When one boy, Buster, shows up at the circus and sees Rex, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, in his beast like state, it makes him sad. He knows that Rex is not like this, that Rex can be good. So, despite the danger, he walks up to Rex and gives him a hug, and he says, “Come on Rex, don’t be like this. Rex means king. Be a king, Rex.” He pleads with him, “Don’t be like this. Don’t be another slob ruining the way the world could be.”

I don’t know what your 2018 was like, but my hope and my prayer for the FPC community is that we not be a bunch of slobs, ruining the way the world could be. To put a positive spin on Buster’s words, in 2019, may we be kings and queens, heirs to the grace of God, who participate in God’s Kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven, Amen? Amen.

A Note from Josh – College & Center Newsletters December 2018

Can you imagine being Mary, the mother of Jesus, pregnant with the Son of God? how in the world did she bear waiting on God to be born?! During the season of advent we talk a lot about waiting. Advent is the season before Christmas, where we intentionally acknowledge our waiting for Jesus to come. We light candles, sing songs, and pray our prayers that acknowledge we are in  a waiting place. Theodor Seuss Geisel, also known as Doctor Seuss, wrote a book called, Oh the Places You’ll Go!, in which he writes about a journey to and through “the waiting place”. Seuss writes, “You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break necking pace, and grind on for miles across weridish wild space. Headed I fear for a most useless place . . . the waiting place.” Seuss characterizes the waiting place with people who consistently lack action. And isn’t he right? Don’t we tend to view waiting as useless because it seems that we attache waiting with a lack of action?

Becca Messman, a Presbyterian minister from Virginia, rewrote Seuss’s words to go something like this:

In the pews every week, there are people waiting . . . 

waiting for the service to end or the organ to start,

for a clearer path or a healed heart, 

for the doctor to call or snow to snow,

waiting around for a yes or a no,

for a better job or their future wife,

for a bigger house or a calmer life

for the boss to decide or for giving to spike,

for a Santa to bring a shiny new bike,

for the contract to end or the package to come,

for the big birthday party or to stop feeling numb,

for a tooth to fall out or the other shoe to drop,

for a weekend with girls to getaway and shop,

for the email to come or for roots to show,

for the trip to St. Louis or the kids to grow,

for the pastor to leave or the next review,

for the phone to ring from their stepson Lou,

for the end of the month or to say “I do.”

Everyone is waiting so we do what we do.

We tap our foot, we clean the house,

We finally fix the computer mouse,

We keep hitting ‘refresh’ or changing the channel,

We change out the pictures on the living room mantel,

We tend flocks by night, or follow a star,

We all feel a tug, wherever we are.

The one who is coming will not be delayed, 

And he told us to remember and not be afraid.

So we sing and pray and light candles in hope,

And wait a bit longer than the end of our rope.

The day will come and is already here,

When all people together, the far and the near,

Will join in the song that is ancient and new,

And love will be born

This action in which our hope is anchored is not our action, but the action of a God that birth’s love in this world in the midst of a gestation waiting place. May we wait this season as Mary did, in pregnant expectation of God’s action in our midst. Amen? Amen. 

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter December 2018

How do you feel about poetry?

Love it? Avoid it? If you are like my mother, perhaps you vaguely appreciate that poetry exists but do not often engage with poems because they seem (in her words) “like confounding and unsolvable puzzles”. To me, however, meaningful poetry is not a question to be answered, but rather an experience of beauty and truth. Here is an excerpt from a poem by Leah Naomi Green I happened upon the other day that took my breath away and strangely enough reminded me . . . of Advent:

I pick [my daughter] up – the miracle
of her lungs that grew inside of me,
kept long dark – her working heart
let out into the rounder world,
the more extravagant feast.”

I read and reread those lines. And then I read them again. How utterly amazing to stop and consider that each one of us started our physical journey in an enveloping, mysterious darkness before entering an overwhelming world full of sound and brightness, heartache and exhilaration, confusion and love. What an astonishing rite of passage from dark to light that marks every human being’s first interaction in life.

As winter approaches, the sun sets earlier than seems reasonably possible, and the cold night spreads over our rooftops long before supper. We find ourselves surrounded by darkness. And sometimes that darkness can creep into the corners of our psyche this time of year, can’t it? The holidays are meant to bring joy for the masses, yet for countless others, the sting of missing loved ones or the chaos of managing packed schedules or the anxiety over downright scarcity may cause many to feel distinctly alone, treading water in the darkness.

But tucked within Green’s poem is a beautiful suggestion: those arduous periods of shadowy uncertainty are the fertile soil for miraculous growth. And if this is true, then waiting in the darkness invites us into an audacious hope. Together.

Poet and critic, Allison Seay, also notes a particular connection between Green’s poetic imagery and the Advent season:

“This is the season where we tell each other [Christ’s] narrative over and again, where we make a manger of our hearts and prepare for joy, for divine birth, for peace, for comprehension, for salvation and unity and hope beyond all measure.”

Comparing our hearts to willing mangers strikes me as profound. There is a poignant ring of truth to the idea that our hearts can be as messy as piles of hay in dimly lit cattle stalls; yet when we prayerfully open our hearts to the wondrous miracle of Christ’s birth, oh, what a flood rushes in!

Let us open our hearts to each other this season, too. Let us pour out grace and compassion upon the heads of those around us. Let us honor the vulnerable infants each of us once was by handling each other lightly and with care. Let us encourage each other that the days for waiting in confounding darkness are numbered. Now is the time to pull each other a bit closer, be even more generous with our hugs and our time, and to pray for each other a little more fervently.

And as we sing out another poetic verse this time of year, the heart-piercingly beautiful lines written by the 19th century French poet, Placide Cappeau, we realize that we are indeed not alone in the darkness. Indeed, we are all together in the dark human struggle that Advent presents, and we will also be together in the dazzling light and delightful relief of Christmas morning that God promises to every last one of us:

Long lay the world in sin and error pining!
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

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