A Note from Josh – College & Center Newsletters, January 2020

My wife continues to invite me into things I don’t think I can do. In college she asked me, “Do you want to run a half-marathon?” I said yes, but I was pretty certain I wouldn’t have to keep good on my response. However, a few months later, I ran my first half-marathon. Another time she asked me to keep a budget, and only spend money we had previously dedicated towards particular categories. I had never been that intentional with my money. However, at the end of my seminary career, we had learned how to survive on a household income of less than $30,000. In December, my wife asked me if I wanted to do Whole30. Again, I said yes, but I was fairly confident I wouldn’t actually begin the diet. However, as I write this blog entry I am 13 days into 30 days of a healthier diet. My wife consistently invites me into things I don’t think I can do, and though annoying as it may be at times, it inspires me, helps me be curious – to wonder about who I am capable of being in this world. She invites me to live out my full potential. The Gospel can have the same place in our lives.

Marriage isn’t always talked about as a source of inspiration. Neither is parenting. I am reading a book right now that is just bludgeoning people with the message, “Parenting is hard and you will find out how terrible you are once you have a child.” I have read a number of books on marriage that promote the same logic. To be honest, I suppose this message is widely used in the Christian world, “Come to Jesus and learn what a sinner you are.” It is a tried, and somewhat true, approach to life and faith, but I think it paints an incomplete picture of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It doesn’t get at our full potential. God wants to do more than just convince us that we are sinners. Jesus says that he came so that we may have life to the full.

In the book of Exodus, God gives the Israelites the 10 Commandments. Jesus gave his first followers The Sermon on the Mount. Both of these teachings helped people understand that they are sinners. The Heidelberg Catechism, in question three, referencing Romans 3:20, “for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” asks the question, “How do you come to know your misery?” The response is, “The Law of God tells me.” I agree with this catechism, and our longstanding tradition on this matter. However, I want to lift up what I believe is needed to fill out the picture of our faith more fully. God’s law , Jesus’ teachings, and the whole of the gospel, teach us not just that we are sinners, but what we are capable of in this world. Without the Word of God we wouldn’t know that we were able to have no other gods before our God or that we were able to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. God makes a consistent effort to help us understand our potential in this world.

My hope and prayer for our community this year is that we would be aware of our shortcomings AND that we would allow the Word of God to inspire us to be everything we were created to be. Whether that comes from an encouraging wife, the 10 Commandments, Jesus’ teachings, or another mouthpiece of God’s Kingdom come. May we enter into 2020 with a willingness to be aware of and live into our God given potential in the world. Amen? Amen.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, January 2020

Romans 7:18-

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 

Same here, Paul. Same. Here.

Somehow it is comforting to know that Paul the Apostle, even after his conversion, struggled to make good choices. In the midst of his prolific and profound letters that seem to contain as much encouragement as admonishment, it always surprises me to find this humble concession.

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.

Paul goes on to write, 

For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. (Romans 7:19)

Such an honest, confessional sentiment resonates with so many of us this time of year as we attempt to wrap our minds around lofty resolutions for 2020. We have wonderful— maybe even righteous— intentions for the new decade, but often in the very moment of hopefully creating goals for ourselves, we hear that internally doubting whisper that we will most likely not succeed. Sound familiar?

Why then do we even go through the pantomime and pony show of making a list of New Year’s Resolutions if we know how likely we are to fail? Is it all for naught? Some years, I will admit, I have subscribed to this jaded view and shunned resolutions altogether, accepting defeat and admitting that no, I will most likely NOT be able to maintain a healthy schedule of consistent exercising and daily Bible-reading and thoughtful note-writing and positive attitude-keeping, etc etc. Ugh.

Yet, I just as often return to this thought: the very fact that the desire to do better determinedly bubbles up out of the muck and mire of doubt suggests to me that there is indeed a God-given capacity, as well as a God-issued invitation, for growth. The creeping hope that maybe this will be the year I grow into a better version of myself somehow reveals that there is indeed more to life than that which I can perceive with my limited sight and meager understanding. The buoyant prayer that consistently swims back up to the surface of my mind and asks God for help in forging onward in this lifelong work of self-improvement tells me that He has not given up on me. He cannot be jaded, will never be defeated, and loves us not because we are good but because He is so good. And that, my friends, is as encouraging a notion as I can conceive.

May you also be comforted by Paul’s utterly human admissions, as well as emboldened by God’s undeterred tugging at your heart during this season of renewal. We may be painfully aware of our faults, shortcomings, and lack of follow through, but in gratitude for all He has given us… we keep trying. 

Hope springs eternally out of God’s everlasting love for us, his flawed, beloved children. And as we realize that we are surrounded by the grace of that love, we don’t give up. We set our intentions and walk humbly ahead into the new year, our hearts full of thanks, courage, and wonder. Amen.

A Note from Jessie-Covenant Newsletter, December 2019

His voice was kind, earnest, and brimming with emotion. “I do,” Steele said.

Her voice was bold and joyous. “Congratulations, you are hired!” the Head of School boomed.

His voice was joking and tender and full of love. “YOU are going to be a mama?!” my dad laughed.

Her voice was quiet, clear, and desperately sad. “Your dad died,” my mom whispered into the phone.

His voice was soft and round as his small, rosy cheek. “Ma Ma,” Vaughan cooed for the first time.

Her voice was clinical and distant. “It’s a girl,” the nurse stated. And I burst into grateful tears.

There are certain voices from my past that still float through my mind, as fresh and close as if my ears just received their messages a moment before. If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can hear the intonation, the vocal quality, the volume of each word. I open my eyes and am surprised to find the slight wetness of new tears.

So many world-altering words spoken and heard over a person’s lifetime. They seem to take on an additional dimension beyond time and space, don’t they?

As we enter this time of Advent, remembering the angel’s surprising appearances and revelations, I cannot help but wonder about Mary… How many times did she replay Gabriel’s voice in her mind throughout her precious life? How often did she return to the angel’s words and ponder the vast difference between the before and the after of that moment’s message? And I also cannot help but wonder, more literally, what did Gabriel’s voice sound like when he announced that world-altering, life-changing, earth-shattering news? How did those words meet Mary’s ears and nestle into her heart?

When you stop to think about words that have changed your life, what comes to mind? I’d be willing to bet there are at least a few that still pack an emotional punch when you pause to recall them in specific detail. And perhaps there are other words from your past, not necessarily connected to a major life milestone, that are evocative all the same… Unexpected praise? Crushing critique? Inspiring encouragement? A witty remark that someone spoke decades ago that still brings a smile to your face?

And have you ever stopped to consider whether or not any of your words have made a lasting impact on others? If others perhaps replay your voice in their minds throughout their precious lives?

As the only category of God’s creation with the gift of speech, how do we use our language to help or to hinder? To praise God or to promote ourselves? To raise up or tear down? To communicate love or give voice to condemnation? Words are so very, very powerful.

God, please help me use my words in a way that pleases you. Moreover, please help me keep my ears keenly tuned in to your voice above all the other noise I encounter each day. Help prepare my heart to receive your messages of peace, love, and hope throughout this season of Advent so that I may in turn share them with others.

After all, who knows what life-altering words await each of us, but if we hold fast to Gabriel’s message, we indeed have nothing to fear:

“With God, you see, nothing is impossible.”

Luke 1:37

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

I have been reading How the Grinch Stole Christmas to my son this year nearly every night. He really likes the book, and he has a lot of the book memorized. He is only four. He must get his memory from his mother, because I don’t have that kind of memory. I was familiar with the story before this year of course. There is a green guy, who doesn’t like Christmas, but he happens to live in a neighborhood where everyone LOVES Christmas. He devised a plan to thwart the whole thing by dressing up like Santa and taking everything. Not a bad plan, so far as plans go. But to his surprise, the Whos celebrate on Christmas morning without any of the stuff that the Grinch stole. This of course throws the Grinch into quite the tizzy, and he begins to puzzle over the matter. He has the revelation that reads like this, “He puzzled and puzzled til his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!”

Theodor Geisel’s book was published in 1957, but that little lesson about Christmas is still applicable. Sure, there are good things about buying gifts for people to show them you care. However, in our current context, which over consumes on every level, Christmas can quickly become just another expression of our society’s gluttonous guise. So, this Christmas season, don’t do that. Take Mr. Geisel’s lesson seriously, and consider how a Christian may celebrate that little bit more by naming Jesus’ birth in this world. Consider, what does it mean that God took on flesh and dwelt among us through the birth of a virgin? How does the fact that our savior was nursed in this world through infancy affect how we observe this season of life? May we not settle for the narrative that proclaims the news that Christmas comes from a store. May we live as faithful disciples who celebrate the gift of our savior in the most joyful way. Amen? Amen.

A Note From Josh – College & Center Newsletters, November 2019

Thanksgiving is right around the corner. Next week, on this day, some of us will gather with friends and loved ones to overeat, watch football, and prepare for the spectacle of Black Friday shopping. Next week, on this day, some of us won’t gather with friends and loved ones. Some of us will eat alone, watch the game by ourselves, and prepare to observe the spectacle of Black Friday shopping from afar. Will you gather or spend the holiday alone?

Of course, those who won’t gather may wish to have a few people to get together with for the holiday. And some of us who will gather with family and loved ones will wish that we were spending our time alone. The holidays have a way of being an interesting cocktail of emotions, memories, and experiences. How will you handle that drink next week?

Depending on our personality, some of us may withdraw and simply numb out from the experience, spent alone or with others, in an effort to avoid whatever reality the holiday brings us. Some of us may continue to look to the others gathered, hoping to find a cue worth replicating. Still others may enter the day ready to pounce on the first relative who chooses to confirm their ill informed political ideology that everyone has suspected they may have. Someone once told me, “Your personality is what shows up when you don’t.” Will you show up next week?

Thanksgiving may be the easiest secular holiday for a Christian to express their faith. Yes, the history behind the event which birthed the holiday is dynamic, and that should be acknowledged. But given some of the foundational characteristics – a day to gather with others who may not be like you, and offer thanks for what has been given – all that seems like the right kind of mix for a very faithful meal. Will you receive the opportunity to live into your faith next week?

There is a quote from the Talmud that I appreciate. It goes like this, “A person will be called to account on Judgement Day for every permissible thing they might have enjoyed but did not.” May you not miss the opportunity to enjoy the holiday. May you show up and live into your faith in a way that proclaims gratitude for every good thing God has given you.

Amen?

Amen.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, November 2019

What do you have committed to memory? 

Have you considered this lately? It’s a rather mind-blowing exercise if you stop to catalogue what is stored away in your hippocampus and why… What is there on purpose, what is there by chance, what is there due to long, arduous hours of practicing rote memorization? Hmmm.

Phone numbers from childhood? Yep, I can still rattle off my earliest phone number, as well as my closest friends’ home numbers. (Note: In a moment of temporary insanity, I just began typing out those various numbers before deciding to spare you and deleting. What could be more useless information than someone else’s old phone numbers?!)

And how many commercial jingles can you recite? Song lyrics from the past several decades? Favorite lines from movies? Detailed information about hilariously tangled conflicts from Friends? Yes to all. Thinking of all that information we have logged soundly away in our brains is quite simply astounding!

As an interested student and later impassioned teacher of English literature, there are dozens of poems I still have tucked away inside that I deeply treasure. Shakespearean sonnets (116 is perhaps my favorite), Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales prologue (in middle English, no less), heaps of Robert Frost, dazzling snippets of Mary Oliver, and a wide smattering from Edgar Allen Poe, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Seamus Heaney… Again, I’ll stop and spare you here. But I keep the words from these poets like a curator keeps gems in a museum: cherishing their beauty and thrilled to bring them out for inspection upon the slightest suggestion of interest from others!       

In fact, the other day, I was sitting in on a meeting with the fabulous Special Events Committee, when dear Mary Marraccini spontaneously bubbled over with memorized words from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem. The moment became magical because it felt as if we were witnessing Mary travel back in time to the young girl she was when she and her father memorized the presently relevant musings about Daylight Saving Time: “In winter I get up at night/ And dress by yellow candle-light.” There were stars in her eyes as those words flowed from her temporal lobe to tongue. It was a beautiful moment to behold, indeed.

Truly, consider the special gift that remembered words offer us in creating an invisible portal through time and space in one mere instant.

It seems only seems fitting, then, that the Children’s Ministry Team has devoted this year’s focus to planting scripture in the hearts of our children. Did you know that? Each Sunday school class looks at a particular verse for a month with hopes that the words will sink into the fertile soil of our young ones’ memories. What a treasure trove I imagine this will create inside the minds of our smallest church members, so that wherever they go or whatever they do, God’s words will inwardly whisper to them throughout time and space.

This also begs a question for me personally: what more could I be doing as a parent to help nurture my children’s focus and memory of God’s truth? Goodness knows I made my students memorize enough poetic lines to sink a ship! But growing up as an Episcopalian, memorizing verses was simply not part of my Sunday School or family experiences. The first verse I memorized was from Psalm 19 at my beloved childhood camp, Camp Lachlan, in the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, oh Lord my strength and my Redeemer.” I cannot tell you how many times I have returned to that verse as a plea and as a prayer.

So I share this bold goal with you now to hold myself accountable: I intend to model memorization of chosen scripture and invite my family to do the same. In this month of gratitude and Thanksgiving, I believe I will begin with one of my favorites, Colossians 3:15:

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

I would love to hear from you what practices your family adopts when it comes to memorizing verses, and of course I would always love to hear of any random tidbits you have memorized, as well! Just do not engage me in recitation unless you want to see me nerd out and take a deep dive into a plethora of favored poems. Consider yourself warned! 🙂

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

“I am a long way from Jonesboro Indiana.” I cannot repress that thought because of the distance between Jonesboro and places like Princeton and First Presbyterian Church Nashville. The kind of Christian I am, the kind of pastor I am, the kind of person I am, has everything to do with that distance. That distance, moreover, creates the space that makes the good news I have to tell possible. (This paragraph is reworked from Stanley Hauerwas’ memoir, Hannah’s Child, Pg. 17)

I was born in Marion Indiana, but I grew up in Jonesboro, mostly. Less than 2000 people live in Jonesboro. It’s small. I enjoyed growing up there as a child. There were plenty of other kids to play with in my neighborhood, and interesting enough surroundings to keep a young one entertained. There were ponds, creeks, and parks. The main road was all brick, which never seemed all that unique until I moved away.

The woes of growing up in a small town like Jonesboro didn’t become apparent until I got old enough to realize that most teenagers would say something like, “there is nothing to do in this town.” That sentiment was the womb which birthed the addictions that plague my family still today. I have two older brothers, and both are in prison. Growing up, it was known that I was “Diann’s youngest son.” That meant I didn’t act like my brothers. People knew me in our small town as, “the good one.” That always made me pause, because I knew I had gotten into my fair share of shenanigans, but I always had a way of keeping them more hidden, or so I thought. It’s hard to hide in the fishbowl that a small town in Indiana can be.

On occasion, I am struck by the distance I have traveled in this world; physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In Dr. Seuss’ book, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, as he writes about all of the different things, he says, “Where do they come from? I can’t say. But I bet they have come a long, long way.” My sense is that most of us have traveled long distances in this world; physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In my most sanctified moments the distance I have traveled evokes gratitude and wonder – gratitude for where God has brought me, and wonder for where I may end up.

May we be a community that names the roads Jesus has traveled with us, and remains curious for where the Holy Spirit may guide us. Amen? Amen.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, October 2019

I came to an awful realization the other day:

I can be a selfish parent.

As in really and truly self-focused. In fact, what I realized in this uncomfortable, epiphanic moment was that the motivation behind far too many of my parental choices, behaviors, and practices are undeniably prideful.

Yikes.

So there I was, listening to another parenting podcast while folding laundry last week when Dr. Aliza, a developmental psychologist, hit a chord that reverberated painfully in my brain. Paraphrasing her question here, I heard her ask, “Who is the audience for your parenting choices, and why?”

For whatever reason, this query crystalized one of my growing concerns and made my motivations plain to myself, as if she had held up a magical mirror from a fairy tale to my inner mind. I realized in that moment that, indeed, I am often parenting to an audience…and unfortunately for everyone, that audience is not God.

For example, if one of my children does not remember to use good manners, I sometimes feel as if a spotlight is shining on me in center stage, illuminating my failure to rear respectful humans. I will then ridiculously insist, in far too-booming of a voice, “Say thank you more loudly so this kind gentleman can hear you!! Look at him in the eyes when you say it!!” You know, just the type of showy exclamation that undoubtedly reveals its prideful intention. Even when I tersely talk to my children in the car after a lapse in manners, the subtext of my words is– if I am being honest– “please don’t make me look bad!”

On the flip side of this vanity, a similar issue arises when my children do something wonderful. Whether they have shared their toys well or mastered a new skill or helped pick up a stranger’s spilled belongings, I almost catch myself looking around for affirmation. “Look at me! I’m raising good humans,” I silently think while giving myself an imaginary pat on the back. Double yuck!!

So why do I unwittingly slip into parenting to an audience? And why does my focus keep returning to myself like a moth returns to a flame? And… can you relate?

Well, the answer to my conundrum is simple yet not pretty. The answer is pride.

As the ever-insightful pastor, Timothy Keller, writes in a sermon titled “Blessed Self-Forgetfulness,” the trap so many of us fall prey to is believing that we are in court each day, trying to prove our worthiness. We compile every action and experience, each failure and achievement, as evidence for either the defense or the prosecution of our worth. We think, “if only I can collect enough right actions and positive moments as a person or as a parent, then my worth will be securely sealed.” 

But as Keller so wisely points out, this line of thinking is inherently flawed. Afterall, the verdict is already in: our worth is securely sealed, and it has nothing to do with worldly approval and everything to do with Christ’s saving grace.

As Christians, if we know this to be true, why then do we return to that imaginary courtroom each day? Keller explains that our own egos lead us there, longing to puff up on meaningless praise when it is God alone who can fill us up with sustaining life. High self-esteem is not the antidote to low self-esteem, because at the center of both cases is self. In order to find peace and true worth, we must transcend ourselves to rest fully in God’s love. It is just not about us. It is about Him.

Perhaps asking ourselves these questions each day will be helpful:

Whether working or parenting or engaging with friends, how often does pride and self-focus creep into our psyche? 

How much space are you taking up in your brain? 

Who is your audience? And moreover, who are you the attentive audience of today? 

As we know, sweet relief and peace flood in when we turn our eyes back to the Lord. What a breath of fresh air we receive when we take our focus off of ourselves and our need for wordly approval, instead reengaging with His love and His gracious calling to love each other well. I want my children to know that He is the only audience that matters, and even more, that seeking Him with our hearts and minds gives us sustaining life. Dear Lord, thank you for reminding me to keep my eyes on you. Please help me teach my children to do the same. Forgive me for being prideful and selfish and seeking approval in the wrong places that only suck the joy out of the beautiful life you have given us. Invade my heart and change it to be more in line with your will. And thank you for these precious gifts of children you have bestowed upon me, knowing that neither parent nor child is perfect, but that in You we find perfect peace and new life each day.

Amen

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

John O’Donohue was was an Irish poet, author, priest, and Hegelian philosopher. He wrote a book of blessings before he passed in 2008. I have been longing for beautiful words of hope and healing in the midst of so many other words in our world today. I have found a bit of what I am looking for in O’Donohue’s blessings; perhaps you will too. Consider his blessing For a New Beginning at the start of another season of life.

 

For a New Beginning

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plentitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

Amen? Amen.

A Note From Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, September 2019

Days upon days have passed, and I am still reeling from the beauty that was the Rooted in Christ: Family Conference. 

What a morning. 

As I have reflected over all I heard, all I saw, and all I learned, it struck me that this blog space would be the perfect place to tuck some of the treasures that I gathered during the conference. Storing those pearls of wisdom here serves the dual purpose of sharing them with you, as well as preserving them as reminders for myself to return to often and marvel over anew.

So, here we go. Here are the “Pearls of Wisdom” I gleaned from all of the magnificent humans listed below:

From Mark and Susan DeVries:

Perhaps it is time to stop working so hard on our relationships and begin enjoying them again. Laughter has tremendous healing properties, and joy can be contagious.

From Sissy Goff:

Anxiety can also be contagious. Remember to breathe. And also remember that, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers and knows those prayers have been answered.”

From Betty Ann Santi:

We each have a latent “Mama Bear” inside that can be triggered in competitive environments. Lead with grace and inclusion, keeping in mind that, “God’s blueprint for your child’s growth and development pattern is yet a mystery and may be surprising as it unfolds.”

From Jeremy Shapiro:

We all have stories from our past that– whether we are aware of it or not—  hold significant influence over our current patterns, fears, and relationships. Bravely entering into the pain and messages of our past will not only help us unearth deep truths about our personalities, but it will also bring us closer into the arms of our loving Father who has been with us every step of the way.

From David Thomas:

Being purposeful parents requires becoming “students of our children,” curious about their inner thoughts and motivations, and aware that the children we are given may be very different than the children we imagined.

From the attendants who eagerly participated in each session and walked the halls during the interims with tears in their eyes:

Keeping our ears open, our minds ready, and our hearts vulnerable will help us learn and grow and share beyond our wildest hopes.

From every single staff member at FPC:

Being part of a team is a humbling, inspiring, and fortifying gift. I am grateful beyond words for all the hard work each and every staff member poured into the Family Conference. Special shout outs go to Sabrina Vlahos, the awesome Young Adult Program Coordinator; Karen Fitts, Deb O’Brien, Tina Rose, Leanne Hudson, and Valerie Duncan of the wonderful Children’s Ministry Team; Erika Shapiro, the most joyful leader of Camp Watermelon; Bryan Miller, the Pied Piper of the Recreation Department; Chan Sheppard and the inspiring Preston Taylor Ministry team; Tim Minnefee and the amazing Maintenance Staff; Kim Rogers and the talented Kitchen Staff; Ronzo Cartwright and the skilled Tech Support; Kayla Clark in the incredible Communications Office; our beloved FPC volunteers such as Amy Pearson, Rachel and Lipscomb Davis, Tricia Scott, Raygan Greer, Mary Elizabeth Colton, and Angelina DeVincenzo; and of course our fearless and bright-shining leader of Young Adult Ministry, Josh Rodriguez. What an honor it is to be teammates with dedicated, hard-working people. 

Gratitude abounds.

God is good indeed.

Amen.

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