Greater Than

 

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“You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24, NRSV)

A new school year is upon us, and for all those who are back in school, it’s a clean slate. Whatever happened last year is old news. You have a chance to start again. You have an opportunity to begin again. For some, that’s a relief while for others, it’s a lot of pressure. Like my parents use to say, “Just do your best, and that’s all we expect of you.”

Luckily, in our spiritual journey of walking with Jesus Christ, every day is a new beginning. I’ve shared before that my favorite prayer is simply this: “O God of new beginnings and second chances, here I am…again!” I am grateful that our God is a God of new beginnings and second chances. And third chances. And fourth chances. And however many chances we need.

What is beautiful about God’s infinite grace is that it allows us to develop our faithfulness at successively deeper levels. The reality is that every time I miss the mark and find myself relying on God’s grace to start again, I am not beginning at the same point as the previous attempt. I am further along in my development as a follower of Jesus Christ. With each attempt, I am making progress. My inner spirit is being formed first, through my attempt at faithfulness, then through the gift of God’s grace when I fail, and finally, through what I’m learning along the way. God’s grace enables me to continue the journey toward becoming a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ.

I am not yet what I will be, but I am thankful that I’m not what I used to be. Without the gift of God’s grace, I am stuck in my sinfulness and my brokenness. With God’s grace, I am free to begin again and to learn from my past.

I love the way Paul describes this in Ephesians. In creation, God imprinted us with his likeness. Although our tendency is to regress into a less than ideal existence where we seek the things that can harm us, God is at work through his grace renewing our mind and giving us a new identity. Paul says it’s like dressing yourself. Each day, we put on something to wear, and he reminds us to put on the righteousness of God. Doing so is like putting on a new outfit every day. As we grow in grace, we become more and more like Jesus, who is the picture of who God wants us to be. None of this is possible without God’s grace working within us.

Our new sermon series is about how God’s grace is greater than anything that might separate us from God’s love. It will be an opportunity to be affirmed by the love God has for you. And it will be an opportunity for you to activate God’s grace to help you grow daily in your relationship with God. I look forward to seeing you this Sunday!

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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Focusing on God

 

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“Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.”
(Proverbs 22:6, NRSV)

These are the days when families, at least those with school-age children, are pushed to the limits of their functioning. With a new school year beginning, there are new schedules, new routines, new expectations, and new expenses that test even the healthiest of families. Tensions arise as everyone is trying to adjust to all the new patterns while also trying to complete a seemingly unending to-do list to be ready for the fall. Here’s the good news—either you will be ready when school begins, or you won’t be ready; regardless, you will be okay no matter what.

In the midst of the frantic planning and the last-minute errands, keep in mind the reason for all the fuss. We want our children to have the greatest opportunity for success, and so we’ll go to whatever ends are necessary to provide that opportunity. We want them to do well in school so that they will do well in life. It’s that simple. Providing a safe and secure environment in which they can thrive is the key to success. So to survive the rush and provide the best possible atmosphere for your children, list all the things you have to do, prioritize the list, plan for the things you can do, delegate the things you can’t do, and remember the “why.”

Like you and your family, the ministries of Canterbury have additional responsibilities as we prepare for the fall. One of our priorities is volunteer recruitment. Having enough people to provide learning and spiritual growth opportunities for our children and youth is a primary value for us. We already have some great volunteers lined up, but we still need more people. Many people are reluctant to volunteer because they fear they don’t know enough about the Bible. We provide an excellent curriculum that will guide you in teaching the children while also helping you grow in your understanding of the Bible stories you share. Other people don’t want to miss being in their Adult Sunday School Class. We have some teaching opportunities that only require two weeks per month so you could still participate in your class.

When my children were younger, I was grateful for all those adults who were a part of my children’s lives. Knowing there were other adults who were interacting with my boys provided a sense of relief to me. These adults were sharing love and wisdom that supplemented what I was able to give. I knew I was not raising my children alone; rather, I had a whole community behind me to help my boys develop as fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.

Reach out to Amy Dobbins (Interim Director of Children’s Ministries) or Brian Ward (Director of Student and Family Ministries) and offer your time, your attention, your love, and your gifts to be used in ministering to our young people. I promise it will not only bless the children and youth, but it will also bless their parents, and it will bless you!

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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150 Years and Counting

 

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“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”
(Psalm 136:1, NRSV)

In the month of October, we will be celebrating 150 years of Canterbury! It’s hard to believe that Canterbury, in its earliest iterations, is older than both the cities of Birmingham and Mountain Brook. October 17, 1867, is the first record of there being a church when Rev. Jackson Lancaster was appointed by the Methodist hierarchy (also known as the Conference) to serve as the pastor of the newly formed mission and named Irondale Methodist Episcopal Church.

In actuality, a group of Christians had been meeting before that in a brush arbor (an outdoor lean-to structure crudely constructed) for biblical teaching and instruction for several years. When the weather was bad, they would gather in people’s homes. The group grew to such a strong fellowship that the Methodist Conference saw fit to assign a pastor who served the Village Springs Circuit. A circuit was a group of two or more churches served by the same pastor, so services were held at times that allowed the pastor to get to all his (and yes, in those days, pastors were all men) churches throughout the day on Sunday.

As I have read through the history of Canterbury, I have been amazed at the vision and the commitment of those who have gone before us from 1867 on up to the 21st Century. It has been refreshing to read of all the milestones in the life of Canterbury from name changes and mergers to land purchases and building programs. There have been controversies (after all, we ARE the church!), but the drive to serve God faithfully and elegantly has always won out. We are the heirs of God’s grace at work at Canterbury. At the same time, we are beneficiaries of the hard work and dedication of many people who have faithfully served God in leadership at Canterbury. Even today, we have families in the church whose roots go back generations and who have continued to serve the legacy of our forebears with an equal sense of commitment and passion.

The Psalmist reminds us that God’s love is steadfast and without fail. I can certainly see God’s hand moving at so many junctures in the development of Canterbury that our church is a testimony to God’s faithfulness. My hope is that as we celebrate God’s miraculous work throughout our history, we allow ourselves to look to the future with anticipation for what God has yet to do in our midst. Since God’s steadfast love endures forever, we can expect even greater things. I believe God is up to something at Canterbury. I pray that each of us is open to the leading of the Holy Spirit as we look to our past to be a springboard to our future. We’re going to have a great time together!

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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Back To…

 

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“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

August is a hybrid month. About midway through the month, we move from the carefree (albeit hot) season of the summer break to the more routine and structured life that begins with the phrase, “Back to…” with some responsibility in place of the ellipsis. Back to school. Back to work. Back to the grind. Or, my favorite, back to football! Let’s not rush too quickly back to the busy-ness. There’s still time for one more trip to the lake, to the beach, or to the mountains. There’s still time for one more lazy weekend before the calendar starts filling up and the “to do” lists get longer.

I think the reason we like to hold onto the last little bit of summer is that our souls need the Spirit of the Sabbath to be whole. God designed us that way. Is it possible that we find ourselves lamenting the end of summer because we’ve never actually found the rest our souls need? Is it possible that our season of rest has been nothing more than another busy season, just with more of the activities we love?

God’s command to keep the Sabbath is not some legalistic prescription that is burdensome or inconvenient. Sabbath is God’s design for developing healthy rhythms of alternating rest and work. In the rest phase, Sabbath is as much about reflecting and recognizing how God is at work in our lives as it is about rest. Sabbath feeds our ability to do greater work for having reflected on “who we are” and “why” we do what we’re doing. If we’ve been so busy this summer that we weren’t able to reflect on the nature of our being and the direction of our lives, then it’s easy to understand why we’re having difficulty letting go of summer.

As in all things with God, there is grace. Even if you missed out on finding the renewal you were hoping for this summer, it’s not as elusive as you think, even now as you’re facing the onslaught of “back to…” Any time spent with God is an opportunity for your soul to be nurtured—even if it’s just a few moments in the morning before you begin your day. If you’re married, finding time at the end of the day to sit silently, holding hands, and being grateful can do wonders for renewing your energy. As a parent, when my children were small, gazing into their beds as they slept could serve as a form of meditation as I gave thanks for their precious lives (and for their sleeping!). As a single person, I remember spending time listening to music on my CD player late into the night and being moved spiritually. Take Sabbath wherever you can, whenever you can, however you can, and you’ll find the energy to carry on and to do great things.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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The Hassle of Complexity

 

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“Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10a, NRSV)

We live in a house that is over 100 years old. About 30 years ago, a master gardener lived in our house. About 15 years ago, that master gardener moved out and, unfortunately, another master gardener didn’t move in. When we purchased the house in 2015, you could see that someone had spent a significant investment of planning and planting the landscaping around our house. The problem was that everything was overgrown. The careful pruning and shaping of the master gardener’s hand were replaced by the laissez-faire attitude of homeowners or the “mow and blow” lawn maintenance professionals they hired. I guess I fall somewhere in the middle between the master gardener and the un-invested maintenance crew. I love a manicured lawn with tasteful, but minimal shrubbery and landscaping.

For the past two years, I have been cutting back the out-of-control limbs and shrubs in hopes of bringing back some beauty and manageability to our yard. Some of the trees had to go because they were creating problems with their roots erupting sidewalks, choking out sewer lines, or damaging the foundation of the house. Other shrubs have been cut back (a.k.a. “butchering”) in hopes of regaining control and a natural symmetry instead of the weird growth patterns created by competing for sunlight. In the 90-degree humid heat last weekend, I realized I was working hard to create a stunning, yet low-maintenance yard. Turning complexity into simplicity is hard work.

My life can resemble my yard if I’m not carefully attending to what’s most important to me. I can keep adding layer after layer of complexity that requires more and more of my time to maintain. After a while, I get busy with other things, and the resulting neglect creates areas that have become unmanageable and overgrown. No matter how hard I try to regain control, my efforts never seem to be enough. I have to make a decision to simplify—to decide what is most important to me—and to prune and trim—and sometimes even totally remove the unnecessary distractions. To do that requires more effort, so the temptation is to keep carrying the load for another day…and then another day…and then another.

The antidote to complexity is simplicity. The Psalmist, speaking for God, says, “Be still and know that I am God.” The unstated fact is that we are NOT God and through stillness, we can connect with the One who created us. Allowing the God who created me to guide my life is one of the keys to simplifying my life.

Maybe you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of life. You are not alone. I’m willing to meet with you and talk about ways that you can connect with God that will give you a better foundation for a more manageable life. If you take me up on it, I promise not to ask you to help me with my yard!

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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Gerald’s Story

 

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“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:8, NRSV)

We were drinking sweet tea as our chairs rocked back and forth on a hot July afternoon. Gerald was in his eighties. He never said much. When he did speak, it was never kind. He grunted his disapproval of whatever caught his ire, which was almost everything. Then he would be quiet for a long stretch before erupting again on another topic that infuriated him. People did not like to be around him. He drove them away. His wife, his children, and even his old friends were all gone. He was home alone most of the time except for two times a week when he went out.

He went to the grocery store every Wednesday morning. People there pretended not to see him. They didn’t want to become the recipient of his latest rant. Many days, the cashier was the unlucky target because there was no way she could avoid Gerald.

On Sunday, Gerald came to church. He sat in the back. He never shook hands. He never stood. He never sang. He never recited a creed or uttered the Lord’s Prayer. He never even bowed his head. None of us had any idea why he came because he didn’t speak to anybody. As soon as the service was over, he was out the door and in his old pickup truck, headed back to his perch on the front porch where, except for rocking in his chair, you would think you were staring at a granite statue—his face in a frozen grimace. He’d sit there until dark and then mysteriously disappear into the house for the night.
It was a small country church, and so there wasn’t much for a pastor to do most days but visit people. People expected me to drop by for a minute—even if I was just passing by on my way somewhere else—and they always had time, and they always had sweet tea. Even Gerald expected me to visit. Why? I’m not sure. But if I didn’t, I would be the subject of one of his venomous outbursts to the cashier when he went to the grocery store the next Wednesday.

People in the church pitied me for having to visit Gerald. They didn’t understand. I went not because I was supposed to go; I went because I wanted to go. I wanted to learn about the pain that lay beneath the surface, to identify the emotional toxin that poisoned him, or to put a name to the villain that created this angry, sullen caricature of a miserable life. He never let on. Gerald never revealed the source of his misery. He would sit quietly for a while, and then he would spew his venom trying to drive me away—but I wouldn’t go until he quieted down again. Once he was calm, I would pray, wish him well, and be on my way.

One time, as I got up to leave, he grabbed my forearm. It startled me that his weathered hand was still almost strong enough to pull me back down to my seat. I started to pull away—but instead, I dropped back into the chair.
I waited for what felt like an eternity not knowing what to expect. Then Gerald spoke.

“What is God like?” he asked sternly.

I was stunned. No ranting. No furious anger. For the first time in my memory, instead of making a brash statement, Gerald asked a question. It was as if there was a tear in the fabric of the universe. At that moment I was presented with both an incredible challenge and a tremendous opportunity. How could I describe what God is like when God, as the Bible says, is the very essence of love? How could I describe that “God is love” to a person who didn’t seem to know love? The task felt impossible; yet, sacred. What would you have said to Gerald at that moment? What would you have done?

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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Celebrating the Past; Looking to the Future

“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” —Psalm 136:1, NRSV

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This past week we observed the 241st Anniversary of the United States Declaration of Independence. It’s a grand time to celebrate the accomplishments of a great nation and to reflect on what it means to be a people of freedom almost 250 years later. Hopefully, along with eating barbecue, watermelon, and ice cream, we were able to thank God for the blessings of living in a land of abundance. Maybe as we watched the fireworks or lit some sparklers, the colorful splendor reminded us of the joy we have in residing in a nation that honors creativity and beauty. Possibly, as we spent time with family and friends, we were reminded of how great it is to live in a country with some of the most caring and compassionate people the world has ever known—many of whom have made enormous sacrifices for the freedoms we enjoy. If you missed the larger picture of the 4th of July, then pause now and thank God for the rights we have that include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Our history sets the stage for our future. The accomplishments of the past can propel us into an even brighter future. Learning from both our successes and our failures as a nation creates a richer fulfillment of the vision cast in our founding as a nation.

Almost 100 years after the founding of the United States (91 years to be exact), the roots of what is known as Canterbury United Methodist Church sunk into the ground in 1867. Preaching services were held in brush arbors (crudely constructed outdoor structures) and when the weather was bad, in people’s homes. A church building was eventually built west of Mountain Brook Village on Hollywood Boulevard and took on the name Union Hill. You will hear more about our history as we get closer to our 150th Anniversary on October 15, 2017.

Canterbury has a vibrant history that includes relocations and a merger of two congregations that culminated in the first worship service on the current property on October 12, 1952, in what is now known as Canterbury Hall. God has blessed this congregation over the last 150 years, and we want to celebrate God’s faithfulness. Additionally, we want to celebrate the thousands of people who have made Canterbury what it is. Keep an eye out for ways you can learn more about this great congregation and for activities that you and your family will want to share in as we “give thanks to God…for his steadfast love endures forever.” God has even more in store for us as we look to our future!

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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The Dangers of Sentimental Religion

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
(Matthew 10:39, NRSV)

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Jesus makes demands of his followers that most of us just gloss over as if Jesus never said them at all. For instance, are we willing to forgive someone who has wronged us multiple times (Luke 17:4), or are we more likely to hold a grudge, plotting how we will get our revenge? Did Jesus really mean for us to love our enemies and to bless those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), or are we exempt from that because our enemies are so much worse than any enemies in his day? Are we willing to seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33), or do we seek our own kingdoms first? Do we do everything we can to preserve our own lives (Matthew 10:39), or are we willing to give them up for the cause of Christ?

Most of us prefer a more sedate and mild form of Christianity that makes no demands of us or at least requires minimal sacrifice on our part. We prefer a sentimental religion that ignores and denies the harsh demands of being a disciple of Jesus Christ for a serene “church in the wildwood” experience where the worst we can expect is mosquito bites (or chigger bites) at the covered dish supper “in the little brown church in the vale.” A sentimental religion denies that Jesus requires us to count the cost (Luke 14:25-33) before we make a commitment, lest we find ourselves unable to fulfill the extraordinary sacrifices that any true religion will extract from us.

Alternating experiences of exhilarating joy and all-consuming fear marked the lives of Jesus’ first followers. The hearts and the minds of the disciples were filled with the ecstasy of seeing people healed miraculously. But also deeply inscribed were the adrenaline-drenched times of intense fear associated with the persecution and rejection of those who denied the reality of Jesus. My experience of the Christian faith has probably been more of the exhilarating joy rather than the overwhelming fear. How about you?

We can each take stock of the demands that our faith in Jesus has made on our lives and determine if we have taken his gospel commands seriously. For me, I am more comfortable figuring out how Jesus makes demands of others than how he makes demands of me. I am praying for a greater sense of awareness for what it means to be a Christian in the 21st Century. I am praying for the courage to engage in whatever sacrifice is required of me for me to be found more faithful to God. There’s no telling where this kind of prayer may take me. I just hope I’m up for the journey. How about you?

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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The Holy Trinity

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19, NRSV)

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What is your image of God? If you are like most people, when I used the word “God” in my question, an image of an older man probably came to mind. If my question were for you to describe Jesus, you would probably describe an olive-skinned man in his 30’s in a robe with long flowing hair. (Thanks to the popularity of Warner Sallman’s painting that has indelibly etched the image in our minds!) If I asked you to paint a picture of the Holy Spirit, you would probably paint a metaphor—something like branches blowing in the wind or maybe a dove descending. All three of these images are images of God—three images of the One True God. We refer to these three images of God as the Trinity.

The word “trinity” is not in the Bible. Tertullian (c. 155- c. 240 AD) coined this phrase so that the church had a verbal way of wrestling with the three-in-one nature of God hinted at in scriptural passages such as the one listed above. Although some scholars dispute whether the phrase was part of the original rendering of the gospel, the Trinitarian reference from Matthew’s gospel describes God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. After Tertullian’s attempt at framing the doctrine, the church became divided over how best to understand the Trinity. For instance, did Jesus come before the Holy Spirit or did the Holy Spirit come first? It became a huge mess.

So the leaders of Christianity decided to hold a council in 325 AD in Nicaea (out of which came the Nicene Creed that we sometimes use at Canterbury). More confusion ensued, so another council was held at Constantinople about 50 years later. Then another council was convened in Ephesus in 431 AD followed by yet another council in 451 at Chalcedon, all in hopes of reaching full agreement on the doctrine of the Trinity. The church (and I) continues to struggle with the three-fold nature of God.

What we can’t argue with is that we are instructed by Jesus to go into the world and to teach about God to all we encounter. We may not have all the right words or even get the theological doctrine exactly right, but if we share what God has done for us, that will be good enough. Your experience of God may be more as the Father. If so, then share the Father with others. If your experience is more with Jesus, share Jesus with those you meet. If you’ve had an experience with the Holy Spirit, share the Holy Spirit with others. Don’t worry about getting it right—worry about getting it out into the lives of others! Then you will have fulfilled the Great Commission. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—three-in-one. Amen!

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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5

The Rhythms of Rest

“On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.”  — Mark 4:35-36a, NRSV

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Jesus routinely took time away for rest and renewal. In the passage above, Jesus had been teaching the crowds when he decided he needed a break. Jesus left the crowd behind and got in some boats with his disciples and headed to a quiet place. He fell asleep because he was exhausted. Unfortunately, a squall came up, and Jesus would have slept through it except the disciples woke him up in fear. Jesus went back to work and calmed the storm, scolded the disciples for their lack of faith, and then went back to sleep. I can’t say with certainty that he went back to sleep. The Scripture doesn’t reveal that fact; however, I’m pretty sure he did!

We all need regular intervals for rest and reflection. I believe we need rest and renewal every day, every week, every month, and every year.

  • I begin each day (after hopefully having slept for seven hours) with a minimum of 20-30 minutes of contemplative prayer.
  • I plan for one full day each week away from work although I sometimes take two half-days due to weddings, funerals, or other pastoral duties.
  • I shoot for three to four days off in a row each month, although I probably average doing that about every other month.
  • Each year we all need an annual vacation that takes us away from our work long enough for us to completely disengage. For me, that requires two weeks in a row although I admit most of the time I only take one week at a time. I need to practice what I preach!

Even if we get this pattern down, many of us merely fill that time designed for rest and renewal with a “to-do” list of activities. These activities drain us or at least distract us from a critical component of renewal—that is, reflection. For us to truly grow, we must be able to get some perspective on our lives. If we’re not careful, we’ll crowd out the time and space needed to adequately reflect on how we’re becoming the people God created us to be. (Notice in Mark 4 that Jesus’ time away for rest is sandwiched between two crowds.) Failing to reflect and gain perspective leads us to a mundane life at best, and a frenetic life at worst. We are not human doings—we are human beings!

Some of you excel at maintaining healthy rhythms. Your lives are characterized by steady and stable emotional resilience. Others are trapped in busy-ness that is robbing you of peace. If Jesus needed time away for rest and reflection, so do we. Let’s make caring for our wellbeing a priority. It’s a great time to establish healthy rhythms of rest and renewal as we move into the Summer. Take care of your Selves!

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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