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,
Austin has now re-entered Stage 5. Vaccinated church members have now begun falling ill to the Delta variant of Covid-19. Parents are wringing their hands as they prepare to send their children back to school where our governor has said that masks cannot be required, and yet, many remote learning options have fallen away or become untenable for families. Meanwhile, the secondary and tertiary costs to each wave of this virus - to not just our physical health, but our emotional health, social health, economic health, spiritual health, and our children's developmental health - have ripped at the very foundation of our wellbeing.
We all had such hopes that we we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and that life would finally begin returning to normal. We're not there quite yet.
Philippians 2:4 says, "But look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." In the interest of our teachers and children returning to school, of the immunocompromised, and all those around the world who do not yet have access to the vaccine:
Read more about the latest recommendations from Austin Public Health here: https://www.austintexas.gov/page/covid-19-risk-based-guidelines
I am praying for you always,
Church camp is my favorite place in the world. The camp that I call my home camp is called Disciple Oaks, or as we refer to it, Camp Gonzo. It’s located in Gonzales (hence the name “Gonzo”), and it’s one of the most spiritual places I’ve ever been to. I’m not quite sure how to describe it, something about the community, the expectation of openness and acceptance, the location; all of it comes together to create a place of incredible spirituality.
After this year’s week-long “conference” camp, I decided that I wanted to join the YMT, or Youth Ministry Team. In short, it’s a group of campers with extra responsibilities. We plan High Schooler camps and help lead them. We go to another camp called CYLS to do the planning, and it’s an intense week of leadership training and camp planning. While this sounds incredibly boring, it was actually one of the best weeks of my life! I was able to use my skills as an unfailing extrovert for good, and I can’t wait to lead a camp.
The experience of going to church camp has changed me for the better, but the experience of planning one has not only changed me but brought me closer to the community of Camp Gonzo and closer to God. The reason Camp Gonzo is such an incredible place is because of the incredible people that make it such. And now, I get to give back. I get to be one of the people that leads others on their faith journey, even if only for one week in the summer. I feel called by my peers and called by God to contribute to this amazing team, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to do so.
If you weren’t aware, our church building has seen quite a bit of use over the past 5 weeks! Reach Beyond Mission has been using our space to run both in-person “day camp” style mission trips for local youth groups, and online “virtual” mission trips for churches from Kentucky to Connecticut.
Local youth groups have served at the Round Rock Area Serving Center and right here on our property, as Reach Beyond Mission and United Christian Church partner to build a community garden. Virtual groups are serving in their communities, with food banks, Habitat For Humanity, Meals on Wheels, and more. Evenings for both in-person and virtual groups have consisted of small group discussions and presentations from speakers about advocacy and social justice work.
While I love working with youth and seeing them grow through these mission trips, a huge source of joy for me during the summer is my role working directly with the college summer staff of Reach Beyond Mission. Our staff this year is smaller, made up of five college students from Texas and California. Three of the staffers are from Austin, two of them participated in the youth group at University Christian Church and one participated in our youth group. All of them are very passionate about social justice work, and how their faith plays into what they choose to do to serve others.
This Sunday, we will hear from two of our staffers about their experience in youth group, in church, on mission trips, serving on staff with Reach Beyond Mission, and how those experiences have shaped who they are today. I invite you to come and hear them speak, whether in person, or online. Hear how they are working towards a more just world, and why that matters to them. And if you come in person, head outside after worship and check out the progress being made on our community garden! We have one more group coming next week, and after that we will be calling on church volunteers to help us (alongside our youth group) plant, and maintain, our garden.