How about some grace?

So, if I weren’t a pastor and I went to a church somewhere, what would I expect of the pastor?

I think that’s a heck of a question, one worth asking from time to time when I wonder where my time went. Am I doing more than I need to do? If so, then why? How much time am I spending on unimportant tasks? Why am I doing that?

OK, here is my list. Yours may be different, but that’s OK.

I would expect the pastor to proclaim God’s Word to me. Preach the word. What is God saying to us through his word right now? I expect that the pastor has studied and prepared some good news for the congregation from scripture.

I would want the pastor to be a regular person. Wife, kids, hobbies, joys and frustrations. If I stop by his house, it’s not perfectly kept. If he comes to my house, he’s right at home.

I would want the pastor to baptize, marry, and bury those whom I love. In those very special, emotional moments, please remind me that God is a part of those moments, too.

I would want the pastor to project grace. I don’t need someone to tell me what to do or how to do it. I already have plenty of people in my life who do that. But grace is hard to find. Maybe the pastor can bring it.

That doesn’t sound too tough, does it? Yet, when you are the pastor, you feel like everyone expects a whole lot more from you. You feel like everyone is expecting you to

  • make the church grow
  • keep the kids engaged
  • attend any and every meeting
  • bless things (crocheted prayer shawls, bibles, necklaces, urns, bricks, cross necklaces…whatever)
  • keep the church sanctuary at a comfortable temperature
  • go after those people who don’t even want to be a part of the church
  • make people behave better
  • tell people how they ought to vote at election time
  • visit people in the hospital who didn’t tell you they were in the hospital because they thought somehow you knew
  • perform a funeral for someone who never came to church but was a pretty good person most of the time
  • conduct a wedding for a couple from out of town who wanted to be married on the beach because you live at the beach
  • remember who can’t drink wine, eat gluten, or likes to drink from the common cup

I don’t know if everyone really expects those things. It’s just that I think people expect those things. We should be able to reach a compromise here. If you expect grace and I expect grace then I can let go of many expectations and simply give you the best gift of all. Grace!

Is it warm in here, or is it me?

Photo by Hans Reniers on Unsplash

As you know (or maybe don’t know) anything can happen on a Sunday morning. As a pastor, you want your Sunday mornings to be uneventful. Should the Holy Spirit choose to blow through and dramatically change someone’s life, I’ll go with it. But in general, I prefer no surprises.

Especially the physical plant surprises that might crop up at any moment. In Connecticut, the worst thing that could happen in the winter was no heat. In Florida, however, throughout the year, the one thing you don’t want to encounter is no air conditioning.

I arrived a little earlier than usual last Sunday morning. I was staving off high-pollen laryngitis and wanted to give my voice a little more time to wake up. It was gravely, but would endure the morning with lots of water and no singing. After running through my sermon, I noticed that the sanctuary was strangely silent as six-thirty AM came and went. Usually, the big AC units kick on at 6:30 to begin cooling down the room for worship. Especially on a humid February morning.

I checked everything I knew how to check. As I often tell my leaders, I barely passed my HVAC class at the seminary. I just knew it was going to be warm if something didn’t happen soon.

About 7 am I called the AC guys. I know that I woke up the owners wife who was handling the phone that morning. They would send someone out.

As the musicians arrived to warm up and early arriving worshipers arrived, the worship folders doubled as fans to cool a quickly warming room. About five minutes before worship was about to being, an AC tech showed up and pondered the mysteries of the box which controlled everything. All I could do was remind myself that it wasn’t that hot yet. Surely he would figure it out soon.

About 30 minutes later, I could feel cold air beginning to circulate through the worship space. Thank you, Lord! It’s not like we can crack a window or anything. We opted out of that when we built. As cool air began to course through the room, those fanning themselves soon put their sweaters on. Feast or famine. Sahara or Arctic, I guess. By grace alone we made it through the morning.

Today (Monday morning), I arrived at the church to begin another week, and noticed that all the big units were running. Still running. I looked at the status display, and it read, “Forced schedule.” Now what do I do? A little later a tech showed up and explained what the other guy did and what to do next time. It’s not an elegant solution, but it will work.

I have plenty on my mind every Sunday morning. I’d like to focus on preaching and teaching. In my dreams! I usually have to deal with electrical (the lights won’t come on), acoustical (my microphone is popping), atmospherical (it’s kind of cold in here, pastor) and medical issues (someone passes out in church). I hope you’ll forgive me if I lose my train of thought.

Getting rid of stuff

I think it started with the remodel. It intensified with the reading of Marie Kondo’s book on “tidying up.” It hit the fan with Josh Becker’s Minimalist Home. We are getting rid of stuff. Here’s a short list:

  • Forty-year old high school and college year books (they’re all online anyway)
  • Plastic storage containers (with lids)
  • The spoon my mom fed me with when I was a baby.
  • Mugs of many shapes and sizes (we use the same two or three every morning)
  • Clothes we don’t wear (some with price tags still attached!)

Kitchen gadgets: apple slicer (we have knives, you know), herb scissors (never used them), angel food cake pan (don’t make angel food cake here), knick-knacks (that have been stored in the attic for years), a portfolio of kids’s art (I took pics of everything), and a whole bunch of picture frames.

This process reminds me of my move from a rented duplex in Austin, TX to the seminary thirty-seven years ago. I didn’t have much, but I left plenty on the curb before I headed off to the seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN. I left behind all my math books (that was my major in college), cheap sofas and chairs, and who knows what else. I sold my bike and trombone. I fit everything I owned into a Volkswagon Rabbit diesel car (remember those?) along with Gabriel, my Labrador Retriever) and headed off to study to be a pastor.

I know. What if I need those books I never read? What if I need that shirt I’ve never worn? What if…

Four years ago we cleaned out my dad’s house. We kept virtually nothing. We got rid of everything. Guess what? You can get rid of a lot of stuff right now!

There’s no coffee.

As I finished up the first worship service last Sunday and walked out the front door, I was greeted by a great friend of mine who said in a subdued voice, “We’ve got a little problem.” Usually, if someone says we have a big problem, I don’t worry about it too much. Such situations are generally blown out of proportion. Conversely, if you tell me we have a little problem, you’ve got my attention.

“We’ve got a little problem. There’s no power in the kitchen. So there’s no coffee.” What? This is serious. Everyone know that’s one of the signs of the apocalypse. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. How in the world are we supposed to do Sunday morning without coffee?

We did just fine, but it made me wonder, “Why do we have coffee on Sunday morning?” When did that tradition begin? Who first had that idea to serve coffee on a Sunday in conjunction with gathering for worship?

I’m straining to remember what it was like in the church where I grew up. I don’t know if they always had coffee, but I do remember our youth group sponsoring a coffee 1/2our from time to time to raise money. My mom drank a lot of coffee, so maybe it was even her idea. I didn’t drink much coffee as a young adult, so I can’t remember if it was available at my church in New Jersey. At my first call in Connecticut, I remember sometimes having to unplug the pot Monday morning. I don’t know if we ever got that on-all-night-burned-to-the-bottom taste out of the pot. We also all tried bringing our own mugs so we didn’t use as many styrofoam cups. In Iowa, the elder on duty prepared and plugged in several giant coffee pots. Try as they might, they just couldn’t get that duty removed from their job description.

I think we’ve had coffee on Sunday mornings most of the twenty-two years I’ve been at my church in Florida. Some of it was pretty good. Some of it was horrid. Every volunteer barista had their own recipe. Some used a whole one pound can to make a forty-two cup pot. Others would only use a cup. Some thought it frugal to use the grounds someone had left in from the previous Sunday. From time to time, someone would forget to put coffee in at all. The water still came out brown, it just didn’t have any taste.

Since I’m still preaching full time, I don’t get to visit many churches. But I’ll bet you won’t find many worship gatherings without available coffee. Trying to discontinue the custom can be dangerous, as described in this article. If it gets people to slow down and talk to each other rather than sprinting to their cars to see who can be the first one out of the parking lot, I guess it’s a good thing for the church.

Yes, I write my own sermons

I stumbled across this blog post the other day: “So, do you write your own sermons?”

I felt compelled to mention here that yes, for better or worse, I write all my own sermons. (I wonder how many think I don’t?) I once ordered a kit for some midweek Lent worship services that included bulletin covers, liturgies, and sermons. Even though I liked the themes and some of the ideas, I had to rewrite all of them. They just didn’t sound like me and needed to be adapted for my specific audience. I didn’t waste my money on any more kits.

It never occurred to me that pastors wouldn’t write their own sermons. My seminary professors — from the historical, exegetical and systematic departments as well as homiletics — spent a lot of time preparing us for the pulpit. Then again, I did have a colleague when I was of several pastors at another church who received some kind of subscription of sermon resources. He never shared them with us, so I don’t know how much he drew from them.

I may pick up some ideas, themes, titles or illustrations from stuff I read, but I have to shape them into my own words. Otherwise, it just doesn’t feel natural. I don’t even go back and use sermons I’ve written in the past. Although I have copies of just about everything I’ve written, I never like them as much as the new material I write.

Yes, I write my own sermons. And just in case you’re curious, here’s the process I generally follow each week as I prepare for a Sunday morning. It’s not a hard and fast schedule, just a routine that works for me.

Monday On Monday morning, I read through the texts for that day (Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel) and decide which one I will preach on that week. I’ll work through that passage mostly in English to come up with a title and basic outline of what I want to say. I usually use the “Lowry Loop” to accomplish this, since it moves my thoughts towards a goal or a “so what” for the week.

From time to time may preach a topical series of sermons, for which I pick the biblical texts. In the past I’ve preached series on the Great Commission, Tearing Down our Idols, Watching Your Mouth, Stewardship, Witnessing and lots and lots of Lenten series.

Tuesday On Tuesday, I’ll work on the passage again, checking other English translations and looking at the Greek or Hebrew to see if there are any interesting words or phrases that catch my attention. I try to anticipate any questions the hearer might have, too. I may look at a commentary to learn more about the passage’s context and interpretation, too. I like to have my introduction and conclusion figured out, too.

Wednesday On Wednesday, I put the sermon onto Keynote slides which will help me remember. I don’t write out the whole sermon but use bullet lists on each slide. My sermons will generally be eight to twelve slides. I style each slide to be more of a story at this point, and put a picture with it, reminding me to show not just tell. It’s also a great mnemonic device.

Thursday Thursday is practice day. The pictures on each slide will be mentally slotted into rooms in my house, which easily helps me remember each one. Then I practice the sermon out loud several times in the sanctuary as if it were Sunday morning.

Friday Friday is my day off, so I try not to work on church stuff at all.

Saturday (and Sunday) Sometimes I’m off on Saturday, sometimes I have stuff to do. But I will always practice the sermon once before bed and then once more early Sunday morning before anyone else arrives at church.

Granted, that’s an ideal week. Some weeks the sermon comes easily and is done early. Other times I feel like I’m Jacob trying to wrestle blessing from God and I’m actually still working on it on Saturday. But it’s always worth the effort. Most days I’ll block out a couple of hours to work on my sermon. Sometimes I have less; sometimes it takes more. Bottom line: it’s not really a message worth preaching unless it has touched my own heart. Then it’s ready.

And actually, the sermon isn’t ever done until I’ve preached it to the congregation. It’s always a little different in front of a live audience. The sermon writing task is rewarding, frustrating, stimulating, agonizing, frightening and exciting all at the same time. Sometimes I hate my sermons. Other times I love them. I can put people to sleep. Other times I can wake them up. Such is the preaching task and the power of God’s Word!

A dream come true? The Crayola Experience

It’s cold. It’s a little rainy. We need something indoors to do with our grandchildren. My daughter-in-law suggests, “You could go to the Crayola Experience in Plano.” Really? I think I was more excited than anyone.

It’s only twenty minutes away. We got our tickets online at a discount. Loaded up the van and we were off. Pretty easy to find. Whoa – when we stepped out of the van we remembered just how cold it was, especially for us FL folks. But it was only a short walk and we were in.

If you like to color, like I still do, you are a fan of Crayola. RoseArt? No thank you. I need the real thing. I remember opening up that new pack of twenty-four at the beginning of each school year. The thrill was quickly eclipsed by the kid in class with a box of 48. But the real oohs and aahs were reserved for those who brought a box of sixty-four with the built-in sharpener.

When we walked in, we stopped at a kiosk where you could personalize a wrapper for a red, blue or green crayon. For a token, of course. Uh-oh. Tokens? Each of us got two with the price of admission. We might need to get more. We’ll see. I made a blue one for my grandson and I think my granddaughter made a red one.

No time to waste. Off to a coloring center. Here you sit at a counter and there are bins and bins of brand new crayons right there in front of you. Classic colors. Metallic colors. Pastels and browns and blues. Niche colors, like Mac-n-Cheese. It was amazing. Off to the side, you could stand in front of a camera and have a line drawing of yourself printed to color. Very cool. I made sure I scanned the pic on my phone so we could make more later.

We didn’t stay there long. There’s a spin art station. You put a crayon in a slot, the paper spins, and melted crayon makes a sunburst design. A second crayon adds an additional color. It quickly dries, we carefully take it from the spinner, and put it in our plastic bag keeper.

Just to the right was another station. A melting station, Here, you put a crayon in the melter and watched as it dripped into a mold. A blower cooled it before your eyes and just like that, you had a ring formed from a crayon. My granddaughter commented, “I never had a crayon ring before!”

I was always fascinated by melting and melted crayons. Growing up I had a high intensity desk lamp which generated more than enough heat to melt a crayon. I remember spending a lot of time creating mountains from melted crayons. I would melt the metallic colors first – gold, silver and copper. I would cover them with other colors, and then go mining for precious metals. On a sunny day, a ray of light and a magnifying glass melted deep holes into melted crayon hills.

What makes a crayon so appealing, so special, so unique? The smell, the assortment of colors, no drying time, the ease of making a shape and filling it with color. An art supply that appeals to both young and old.

Crayola has it’s own formula of a Play Doh-like substance called Model Magic. It’s a tad more elastic, but harder to separate than Play Doh. We had about an hour’s fun with that, too.

They had a show to watch, a live-video hybrid demo of how crayons are made. I was rapt. We got a free crayon on the way out, too.

On the way out, you go through the gift shop. One wall is completely covered with crayon towers in every color they produce. You can mix and match your own box, just like picking an assortment of craft beers for a six pack. You just can’t walk out without some crayons!

I would go back or to another location at the drop of a hat. What a great way to spend a morning!

Lunch with my dad and his friends

At the end of last month, I got to spend a few day with my dad. If you’ve read any of my blog posts, you know he lives on a memory care floor in a very nice assisted living facility in Springfield, VA. I not only got to visit with him for a couple o days, but also got to have lunch with him and some of his friends.

I flew up early on a Tuesday morning, took the Metro to Springfield and walked up the hill to his residence. On my way in, I mentioned to the front desk that I wanted to eat lunch with dad. Eight bucks. No problem; I had a little cash in my pocket. I was all set. That evening, my brother was surprised that I had to pay. They usually offered him lunch when he sat next to dad. Sure enough, the next day, I simply sat there and they brought me lunch. Sweet.

Dad wasn’t awake much the first day and only ate soup and ice cream on the second day. I, one the other hand, had a nice grilled ham and cheese sandwich on my first day there, and some really good lasagna on day two, plus much of dad’s turkey reuben.

But the best part was sitting there with all the other people at dad’s table. Across the way from me was Joe, who didn’t eat much, but often looked and me and smiled. Next to him was Irene, who kept trying to get Joe to eat some of her food. On the second day, she poured her soup into her juice glass and drank it. When one of the caregivers asked, “What are you drinking?” I explained that it was her soup. Both of them just smiled. Hey, when you’re that old and in a place like that, why not?

To my right was Bob, who though most of the food was so-so, even though he ate all of it. Next to him was Millie, who ate her lunch very slowly and deliberately. I must have looked young to her. She asked me, “So how do you like your classes?” At the end of the table was Glenn, who I later found out had been there as long as my dad, close to two years. It took a while, but he ate every bit of his lunch.

In many ways it is an alternate reality. These beautiful, sweet and wonderful folks welcomed me into their world. They graciously made room for me at their table, shared their food with me and accepted me with no reservations. It was a liberating moment, for no expectations were thrust upon me. All I had to do was enjoy my lunch.

I needed that moment. Not just to be with my dad, but to be with them. Life is so much more than all the stuff I have on my mind. Sometimes it’s just about lunch.

A kingdom moment: at the rail with my grandson

Our Redeemer Lutheran Church and School, Dallas, TX

(This post is about one of those occasional moments when, as I seek his kingdom, I experience a kingdom moment!)

When you’re a pastor, you don’t get to sit in the pew very often. My call means I am up front, in the chancel and in the pulpit, thinking about dozens of things other than worship. Like the sermon. Or the attendance. Or the temperature of the room. The faces I don’t recognize. Or those arriving late. Or those who aren’t there.

But when I recently visited my son and his family in Dallas, I got to worship at his church and I didn’t have to worry about any of those things. I sat in the pew with my wife, my granddaughter and grandson, and my son’s in-laws. Nothing to remember, nothing to worry about. Just an hour immersed in the means of grace.

After the offerings, my grandson made his way over to my side and my wife, said, “He wants to go to communion with you.” Now that is very cool. When the usher nodded to us, his small hand took mine and we made our way forward to the communion rail.

It was definitely a kingdom moment. Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.” Though his two-year-old mind wasn’t able to fully comprehend what was happening, I wondered what was going through his mind as we knelt together at the communion rail. What are they eating and drinking? Why can’t I have some? This is a special place. And that’s my dad up there!

In that moment, I wasn’t much different than him. I’m a child of God, too. I might understand more of what’s going on, but it’s still a mystery to me how my risen and ascended Lord can be physically here for me in some bread and wine. All I can do is take his word for it, and indulge in this moment of grace. This is a special place. And that’s my son, the pastor, giving his dad the sacrament and his son a blessing.

Times have changed. I never got to go to the rail until I had been confirmed as a teenager. My mom and dad usually communed separately, one staying behind to keep an eye on my brother and sister and I, not trusting us to sit there alone. They were wise.

The older I get and the more kneel at the altar, the more I understand what a powerful moment this is. In fact, I just want to stay there, like Peter and James and John on the mount of Transfiguration. But it all over in a moment, and we are back in our seats, resuming our wiggling, snacking, coloring, and whatever. But here I am, five days later, and that moment still sticks in my mind, brings a smile to my face and can never be taken from me.

If the little ones at the rail bring a smile to my face, can you imagine God’s smile?

I want to be that kind of encourager

Time was running out and I just couldn’t do any more reps. It was one of those volume workouts that included a run, followed by fifty burpees, and then fifty wall balls. Repeat and repeat and repeat. I don’t remember how many rounds I had done, but the 14 pound ball suddenly felt like it weighed 50. Time hadn’t yet run out, but I was done. A voice next to me said, “Come one, I’ll do them with you.” We did about ten more together.

I want to be that kind of encourager. I’ve never been to a CrossFit class, home or away, where I didn’t get a fist bump from the coach and at least two other people. It didn’t matter how I though I performed that day. I was there, I made it through the workout, and that’s what mattered.

I had just finished my presentation. It didn’t go as well as I hoped. Even though I thought I had practiced enough, I felt like I could have done better. But when the evaluations came, every comment was, “I really liked this…I enjoyed the way you did that…I love how you included this…” Yes, there were suggestions on ways to improve. But they made me feel like mine was the best they had heard all day.

I want to be that kind of encourager. In both of the training classes I took to teach in the Good News Clubs, I always came away with the kind of encouragement that made me believe I could do this. I could effectively teach these kids.

It is far too common to hear nothing but complaints and criticism. Encouragement, however, is that rare jewel that accomplishes so much more. It motivates me to keep going, to try harder, and to do better. I’ve got to believe it has that effect on others, too.

So I’m going to learn to be that kind of encourager.