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.
Not to be a major buzzkill, but I’ve been thinking a lot about grief and suffering lately, and you can probably guess why. There is no escape from the suffering of this life. Not for Christians, not for anyone. If there is anything I have learned from my first ten years as a pastor, it’s that each one of you carries a unique and beautiful story, and each story is laced with both joy and suffering. And so many of your stories begin like this: “I never imagined this would happen to me…” Suffering is never part of our plan.
So we often try to escape the suffering -- convincing ourselves that if we just cut and run, we can surely find a place where the grass is greener, the deal is sweeter, and life is easier. Other times we try to numb it, so we keep pouring the wine, keep scrolling, keep buying, keep eating, and thereby we bypass a chance at growth. For the caterpillar to become a butterfly, she must first let herself disintegrate into absolute mush inside the safety of the cocoon. She must die to her old life before rising to the sky.
Most importantly, the cross teaches us there is only One suffering. Whenever we suffer, we participate in the One suffering of Christ -- the God who was, and is, and will always be close at hand when we are in pain. And this pain, as we learn through the holy scriptures, is always transformed. God promises a rainbow after the flood. God promises resurrection after death. Our suffering will not be erased, but it will be transformed, either in this life or the next. Ultimately, all things will integrate into Love: this is the dynamic of salvation.
What a joy it was to see so many of your faces again in person last Sunday at 9 and 11 AM! It was so wonderful seeing 13 children at 9 AM, ready to go outside and play with Emily. And those of us in the sanctuary at 11 AM could feel all 42 households who were present with us in Spirit, worshipping at home via Livestream at 11 AM. It was so good to be together.
This past Sunday we began a three-part series on the Holy Trinity. We spoke about how God, at God’s very core, is a loving relationship among three. The ancient Cappadocian theologians called God’s Trinitarian essence the “Circle Dance” or the “Divine Dance.” They believed that God was a loving flow, a radical relatedness, or a waterwheel of love that has been turning since the beginning of time. You can learn more about trinitarian theology in Fr. Richard Rohr’s book, “The Divine Dance,” or you can just attend church the next two Sundays for the completion of our three-part sermon series.
If there’s anything we’ve learned from these 15 months of distance, it is that God made humanity for community. Community is something we need as surely as we need water or bread. And if there’s anything we’ve learned from times of deep suffering or pain, it’s that we need the comfort found in those who love us. So now, as we cautiously return to community after 479 days of exile, let us meditate on the meaning of community through the theology of the Trinity in this sermon series, Divine Dance.
Hello, dear friends!
This week, our Sunday morning schedule will be changing. As I'm sure you all can understand, we are working with an ever-evolving situation and are needing to accommodate and adjust our plans, as needed. Therefore...
Starting THIS Sunday, we are very excited to be able to offer in-person OUTDOOR activities for children during the 9 a.m. Worship Service. These activities will be available for children ages 3 and older and masks will be required.
9 a.m. - Worship in the Sanctuary
In-Person Children's Activities will be available outside in the church yard.
Should children wish to remain with their families, in-seat activities will also be available for each child.
11 a.m. - Worship in the Sanctuary
Children will remain with their families. In-seat activities (coloring/activity pages, crayons/pencils, small manipulatives) will be available for each child.
6 p.m. - Worship&Wonder - Online using Zoom
We will be continuing our evening worship time LIVE on Zoom through August.
Emily Jamison Guerrero
Children's Ministries Coordinator
Your church misses you. Who would have thought 15 months ago, that it would be this long until our greeters would swing open the doors to our sanctuary again on a Sunday morning? I am dreaming of greeting you all again face-to-face. What a celebration it will be on July 4, 2021 when we come back together in person at our 9 AM and 11 AM services! Between services, we will be having a time of fellowship outside with popsicles and single-serving drinks for all.
On July 4th, you will have 3 different options to join us in worship. You may join us at either of our two indoor worship services at 9 AM or 11 AM. Alternatively, you may join our 11 AM service online as we stream live from our sanctuary to our website, to our Facebook page, to our Youtube channel, and to our Twitch channel. To find any of these online options on Sunday morning or afterwards, you can simply type uccaustin.org/live into your search bar. There will no longer be a 10 AM service.
Your In-Person Team has worked so hard to create the best possible in-person worship experience for you -- one that is safe, comfortable, and accommodates the number of people we anticipate returning to our building. They have also had to continually adapt their plans as the situation on the ground changes. Most recently, given several changing variables, they, along with your Council’s approval, have decided the best way for us to foster social distancing will be for us to move to two nearly identical indoor services at 9 AM and 11 AM, rather than trying to temporarily remove and store our pews. This means we will be asking you to social distance yourselves, keeping 6 feet between you and those next to you in the pews, and doing your best to stagger yourselves front-to-back so that there is six feet of distance between you vertically. We encourage our 11 AM worshippers to consider attending our 9 AM service to spread out our numbers, and we hope to foster that by making the two services very similar.
Two weeks ago we held a Town Hall meeting for those interested in learning more about our plan for coming back together. If you missed that Town Hall, you can go to our website at uccaustin.org/indoorworship. In short, you will be asked to mask, social distance, and refrain from singing for the time being. Our Nursery Care and Sunday School will be on hold for now, but two vaccinated children’s volunteers will be available to take children outside after the children’s sermon. Hymn lyrics and prayer responses will be on two flat screens hung on the pillars on either side of the sanctuary. Bulletins will, therefore, be optional but accessible on your mobile device. We will continue to use single-serve communion for now and refrain from passing the offering plates.
We return to worship as different people. Worship too will look a little different. Our practices will continue to evolve, however, as the situation evolves, and especially as our many children become vaccinated. If there is anything we have learned from the last 15 months, it is how to adapt. So thank you for your grace and understanding as we prayerfully balance your need to be together, to worship God, to be safe, and to feel comfortable.