This February, 2 years into our interim journey and 1 year into the pandemic, I unexpectedly became your solo-pastor. This past Sunday, exactly 3 years after Rev. John’s departure, this church has a settled minister again.
We certainly went on a long and far-reaching journey together these past 3 years, and in the end, you chose a minister who was quite literally, close to home. Even so, I know God prescribed this wandering time for us to recall our history, to uncover who we are today, to dream big dreams, and most of all, to build a firm foundation for our next chapter. I am eternally grateful for the dedication and resilience that you have shown throughout this wandering time, and I can never express to you my gratitude for being entrusted with the honor of shepherding a community such as this.
So, my first week as your settled pastor, I would like to reiterate the promises I wrote to you almost one year ago (tweaked slightly for our new chapter together):
As your settled senior minister, I promise to do my very best, with God’s help...
Beloved, I will inevitably fail. Many of you have witnessed me fail already. So I pray in these years to come that we can continue to show each other the grace required to manifest God’s dream of a world of love and justice.
So the big day is finally here! We have been affectionately dubbing it the "Celebrate-All-The-Things Day," and we really do have so many different things we're celebrating Sunday.
At 9 AM, we will worship in our sanctuary or online, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the union of Trinity Congregational Church and Pecan Springs Christian Church to become United Christian Church of Austin. We will also be commissioning Meghan Dever as Youth Minister. Longtime member and friend Rev. David Owen will be bringing the message. Please note there will be no 11 AM service.
After our worship service, there will be a 30th anniversary slideshow to celebrate our history, followed by a congregational meeting. The congregational meeting will have several big voting items on which members may vote.
Finally, we'll adjourn outside for a picnic celebration, with bluegrass band Steel Betty and lawn games providing entertainment. If you didn't order food ahead of time through the church, please bring your own picnic along with your picnic blankets and lawn chairs to hang out and enjoy the fellowship, music, and burning of our mortgage! Yes, we've paid the big one off!
For so long friends, due to Covid, we missed celebrating anniversaries, weddings, birthday parties, holidays, and other celebrations. This will be the day we finally come together to celebrate again how far we've come over the past 30 years of union, the past 3 years of transition, and the past 2 years of Covid. We have so much to be thankful for United Christian Church of Austin, so join us Sunday as we celebrate all the things!
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
At the risk of oversharing or being overly dramatic (please remember that I was for a brief time a drama major), I will tell you that this week has been filled with both “the best of times and the worst of times.” This week, along with the past few months have been, as Dickens once wrote in the quote above, “the season of light” and “the season of darkness, “the spring of hope,” and “the winter of despair.” Isn't it amazing that the human heart can both at once?
You, United Christian Church of Austin, along with my family, have been my light and my hope. As my lifelong dream of married life now officially comes to an end, my lifelong dream of shepherding a church of kind-hearted folk through their own joys and struggles of life may now be coming into being. As the Great Story of the Gospel teaches us, death does not have the last word. We can endure the endings in life because as people of faith, we know there is always rebirth, or as one of my favorite hymns sings,
“In the cold and snow of winter
there’s a spring that waits to be
unrevealed until its season
something God alone can see.”
This is the Eternal Story - the “circle of life” - witnessed in the Gospel, in my life, and in the stories you have told me about your own lives.
If I have learned anything over the past year, it is that God embraces us through the Body of Christ, through beloved community. I honestly don’t know how other people carry grief without a loving biological and church family. Even though human love can be impermanent, “the love of God is everlasting” -- it keeps finding its way to us, over and over again, through beloved community, through human kindness, through the abundance of Creation, and through the inspiration of the Word. God’s love is relentless like that. So thank you, the people of United Christian Church of Austin, for showing that relentless love to me these past months -- for being a channel of God’s grace and mercy to me and my family.
Now I pray that I might do the same for you over a long and fruitful pastorate. I pray that I might prove worthy of the faith our Search Committee and Executive Committee have placed in me by presenting me as your candidate for the settled pastorate. We have done such amazing work together this past year, hand-in-hand, despite a pandemic, despite transitions, and despite the challenges of our own personal lives, and so I cannot wait to see what God has in store for us. Like you, I have big dreams for us, and I have bright faith our future together will be blessed and beautiful.
Set the produce before the LORD your God, bowing down before the LORD your God. Then celebrate all the good things that the LORD your God has done for you and your family -- each one of you along with the Levites and the immigrants who are among you. - Deuteronomy 26:10-11
- By Rev. Jim Cowart
There is a sweet repetition embedded in Moses' instructions to the children of Israel. As he commands them to bring the first portion of their crops to the Lord, he reminds them that this is not a "pound of flesh" to appease some distant deity and to buy divine favor. No, this is a sincere act of gratitude to "the LORD your God." [...]
There is even a party atmosphere in this act of giving back to the Lord. Moses instructs the people to "celebrate all the good things" God has done for them. There is a sense of joy, laughter, and gratitude in giving back that echoes into the New Testament's declaration that "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Cor 9:7).
Okay, so let's bring this closer to home. How do you give? What is your attitude? Do the words joyful, appreciative, and celebratory come to mind? [...]
The way we give and manage money says a lot about us as people and followers of Jesus. Money management is even given as an indicator of how God can use us for the Kingdom. We read in the Gospel of Luke, "If you haven't been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?" (Luke 16:11). The issue isn't about how much we have but how much we manage what God gives us.
Joyful, celebratory generosity to God is probably one of those things that we all need to practice. And I mean practice in the same sense in which we practice singing, practice baseball, practice the piano. When we practice something, we don't just go through the motions; we do it to get better and better at it. When we practice giving joyfully to God, we will find that we become better and better at it, that even our attitudes will begin to change for the better. As you give to God more and more with a sense of joy and celebration, you'll be well on your way to being a wise and generous manager that God can use.
Saving Grace: Hope-Filled Devotions Along the Way to Financial Well-Being. Abington Press, 2020.
In our last letter, we reflected on how rhythms of exile and return, diaspora and homecoming, have always been a part of Christian life. And that’s true.
It’s also true, though, that the Covid-19 pandemic has been a season of separation like no other we’ve ever known. As we look ahead to United Christian Church’s next chapter, we may never appreciate the power of gathering together in person more than we do today.
The beauty of worship — gathering together in the midst of a world full of distance. The wonder of music — singing together in the midst of a world full of silence and loneliness. The sweetness of sacraments — sharing of one common loaf of bread in the midst of a world full of division and hunger. And the joy of service — working together in the midst of a world full of broken systems and broken hearts.
In short, if the world is full of exile, United Christian Church is a community of return. A place to come home to, again and again. A congregation in which we can tangibly experience God’s ancient promise to “bring you back to this place,” and “give you a future with hope.”
And here’s one more thing that’s true: even when this pandemic is a distant memory, the world will still be full of need. Still longing for home, for community, for reunion, for return.
That’s why we’re here. That’s who we are: a waystation of hope along life’s way. It’s the same reason God chose to be born with us as Jesus of Nazareth, to help us build bridges of connection and companionship — so that everyone might experience a homecoming to God’s new world of joy, justice, and love.
So we hope you come home to church in-person or online on Giving Sunday, October 10th, when we will dedicate our pledges (9 and 11 AM), welcome new members (11 AM), and celebrate our “future with hope.” We invite you to bring your pledge card (if you are not pledging at uccaustin.org/pledge) and/or something to place on our communion table in worship that represents a ministry of our church. (For example, you could bring a book for Christian Education, Animal Crackers for Children’s Ministries, a prayer shawl for Caring Ministries, canned goods for Social Justice, a youth mission trip T-shirt for our Youth Ministries, a piece of music for our Music Ministry, a loaf of bread for Worship, etc.)
In the meantime, keep praying and giving thanks for all the ways things like our progressive faith, our community garden, our hybrid worship, our Christmas pageant, our social justice work, and our life together help bridge the gaps in Austin and the world, longing for connection and mending.
Rebecca Molis (Treasurer), Jan Keeling (Financial Secretary), Andrea Larson (Council Chair), and Rev. Anna Kreisle
If it’s good to be together, it must be bad to be apart.
And yet: the truth is that life has always been a rhythm of separation and togetherness, exile and return. We may prefer the “return” bit, the “bring you back to this place” bit, but that doesn’t mean separation isn’t part of the story.
Experiences of separation are at least as old as the ancient stories of the Garden of Eden, the Israelites’ exile in Babylon, and the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus and his followers were separated by betrayal and death, and then reunited by forgiveness and newness of life. Even on our most “normal” days, our lives are a rhythm of gathering and dispersing, coming together and going apart, calls to worship and benedictions.
These past 18 months have been another profound experience of this ancient pattern, and as challenging as it’s been, we take solace in the knowledge that our ancestors, too, experienced seasons of exile. And here’s the point: thanks to this history, over time our faith — and our church — have been built to help us live through such seasons with grace and hope. And just look around at our church! We are brimming with such promise and hope, even during these difficult days!
At our core, United Christian Church is a community of reunion, homecoming, and return. Now more than ever, in a world full of exile, our congregation stands as a beacon of hope, welcome, and radical hospitality rooted in love.
With all of this in mind, we invite you to join us in giving thanks for all the resources — spiritual, theological, physical, and financial — that have brought us through this difficult time with such exceptional grace, and promise us a future with hope. And as we look ahead, we invite you to pray daily over the coming weeks and to bring the enclosed pledge card (or go to uccaustin.org/pledge) to our in-person or online worship on Giving Sunday, October 10th. Together, we’ll dream new dreams for this next chapter in our life together, and with our gifts, we'll celebrate God’s beautiful gift of “a future with hope.”
Rebecca Molis, Jan Keeling, Andrea Larson, and Rev. Anna Kreisle
Welcome home! This Sunday is the big day. We invite you back to church whether that be online or in person. We will have services in-person at 9 AM, a BYOPicnic on church grounds at 10 AM, and a hybrid service online or in-person at 11 AM. You wont' want to miss our 10 AM festivities because there will be a Snow Cone truck, arts and crafts activities for all ages, lawn games, a photo booth, music, fellowship and fun.
Kickoff Sunday each year marks the beginning of our faith formation programming for all ages: children, youth, and adults. Your Education Team has been in consultation with your Coming Together Team (which includes select Executive Committee Members, Education Team Lead Logan DeCleene, and church member Caitlin Oliver of Austin Public Health) to come up with a plan that is safe and serves the faith formation needs of all.
For Elementary School children, Emily and education volunteers will be holding outdoor faith formation during both worship services after the Children's Message. There will be no programming between services at 10 AM for the time being, however, in order to minimize the exposure time and to allow volunteers to re-set and sanitize.
For Youth, youth group will re-commence Sunday evenings with a murder mystery Party Sunday night! See Meghan's email or contact her for all the details.
For Adults, we will begin a brand new series called "Saving Grace" Monday evenings at 7PM on zoom about financial planning for people of faith. You can buy the participant booklet in paperback or kindle online, but don't hesitate to join if you haven't gotten your book yet. This is a practical course with a spiritual foundation that is sure to be useful to anyone with a wallet!
For the time being, nursery care is on hold due to infants and toddlers being both unable to be masked or vaccinated. We look forward to a time when we are able to safely welcome them back into the nursery! In the meantime, we still have books and busy bags available in Fellowship Hall for in-seat activities during worship.
This Sunday is a great Sunday to bring a friend who might be looking for a spiritual home or more community in their lives. We hope to see you in person or online as we celebrate new year of Faith Formation!
I’ve been reading up recently on the work of Dr. Kristen Neff, a psychologist working out of the University of Texas who has been pioneering research on self-compassion. When I and many other millennials were growing up, our parents, along with the rest of society, were caught up in the “self-esteem movement.” Children were told they were “special,” “unique,” “gifted,” and “talented,” in an effort to construct happy adults who felt good about themselves. Unfortunately, it backfired: many millennial children were pumped up to believe that they were uniquely gifted. When they eventually flew the nest, they found that there were many other birds who were equally - if not more - gifted, special, and unique. On top of that, there was no longer a mother bird to cushion their inevitable falls. The internal dialogue then flipped completely; “I am not special, therefore I must be boring.” “I am not gifted, therefore I must be unworthy.” “I am not talented, therefore I must be a failure.”
Dr. Neff says what is much more important than self-esteem for all of us to learn to make it through the difficult times in life, and much more important for parents to teach our children, is self-compassion. Self-compassion means seeing ourselves through the eyes of love, or in other words, through God’s eyes. Self-compassion means talking to ourselves the same way a loving friend would, who serves as an angel-messenger of God saying things like, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You did the best you could. We all make mistakes.” Self-compassion means intentionally cultivating lovingkindness, beginning with ourselves, and then radiating it outwards. As Christians, we must extend love, compassion, and respect to ourselves because all of us carry the image and likeness of God. This is the heart of worship and praise -- honoring the image of God in us, each other, and in the world -- and it can happen any day of the week, any hour of the day, any place on earth.
You may feel selfish loving on yourself. When I first began practicing Buddhist metta meditation, I found it difficult to begin by saying, “May I be peaceful. May I be happy. May I be safe. May I awaken to the light of my true nature. May I be free.” It would have been much easier to begin with my children or some other beloved. It is still difficult for me to practice self-compassion. I often feel I have accrued so many failures in my life that my instinct is to take up pennances rather than self-compassion. Excessive penance, guilt, and shame, however, always lead to bitterness, which bleeds into the world. Self-compassion, however, always expands, glowing outward to God’s people, God’s creation, and finally to God herself. Again, this is the very essence of worship.
I don’t talk about self-compassion because I have mastered it. In fact, most of the things I preach and write about are things I’m currently fumbling with. Pastors are as flawed and as human as you in the pews. Perhaps together, however, we can become a people who remember, especially in these hard times, to cultivate more love and grace not just for each other, but also for ourselves.
"Uncle!" Your pastor has relented. We are now re-instituting our popular Sunday Zoom Fellowship Hour, under the new and improved branding: "Zoom Coffee Talk" at 10:30 AM between services. (**Please note that "Coffee Talk" must be pronounced with a New York accent reminiscent of the Mike Myers SNL skit from the 1990s.)
I must admit, I did drag my heels for weeks on this, but your pastor is not a person incapable of changing her mind.
It's not that I didn't love our Zoom coffee hour; truly, I did. In fact, when we were all at home, I got to know many of you during Zoom coffee hour in a much deeper way than I ever would have during the busy pleasantries that happen in Fellowship Hall on Sunday mornings.
But the truth is that I've grown to resent Zoom. These virtual gatherings have come to symbolize for me all the ways in which my life and ministry have changed. After 16 months, I am still not accustomed to the substitutions we have made. Typing "Good Morning!" does not feel like hugging friends during the "Passing the Peace." Breaking bread by myself at the communion table does not feel like the Lord's Supper. Zoom pastoral care with someone with whom I cannot make eye contact or pass a box of tissues feels cold and clinical.
But truly, both online and in-person ministry have their own unique blessings. Teachers, healthcare workers, and pastors like me must accept the fact that we are not going back -- even if this virus disappears tomorrow. Our entire life, ministry, and way of being as a church family has changed. I admit, as I stare down the barrel of life as a single working mom, I will need hybrid options going forward for evening meetings. The homebound in our congregation need if they are to make it to worship or small groups. Traveling professionals still long for a community of faith. Inclusivity these days often looks like a laptop.
So it is my prayer that we as a church family may continually evolve in our online, in-person, and at-home ministries to include to all God's children, whether they be in-person or online, rich or poor, young or old, black or white, gay or straight, able or disabled. God never separates us into classes of worshippers - those in in-person and those online - and so neither should we. So let us all widen the welcome of our ministries to those at home -- not just when the virus is spreading -- but from this day forward.
Blessing of the Backpacks!
Here we are, at the beginning of another school year. I'll admit, I’m having a difficult time getting excited about the school year starting up again when there is so much to worry about. Children feel the anxiety around them…I know my kids do.
But I wonder…what’s something you do as a family to help you cope with anxious feelings? As an adult, what’s one thing you do to help you feel peace? Something I have found that can help as we navigate these difficult times with our children is by doing things that feel empowering or uplifting. Here are some ideas:
this!!! Go team!!! Shine your light today.
Courage and kindness in all things.
At church THIS SUNDAY, all students and teachers are invited to bring backpacks and masks and any other learning tool to our Blessing of the Backpacks DRIVE THROUGH event from 10-11. Come out to the church for an in-person, safely distanced FUN activity! Let’s add another tool to our toolbox of ways we can empower and uplift our children. You can also bring your backpacks and masks to in-person worship at 9 and 11 or receive the blessing online at 11 am.
I pull a lot of peace and strength from remembering that GOD IS WITH US – in all times and places. We are all BELOVED Children of God and we are not alone.
With love, always,