Just a whisper

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Photo by London Scout on Unsplash

And [the Lord] said [to Elijah], “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

I have long been fascinated by this moment in the prophet Elijah’s life. He’s ready to give up and pack it in. He’s not just ready to retire. He wants to die. God’s says, “I want to talk to you. Climb up that mountain over there.”

Then, rather than manifesting himself in a tornado, earthquake or wildfire, God speaks in a low whisper. The literal words are a “thin silence.” So I’ve been wondering, would I rather hear God shout or whisper?

On the one hand, God’s powerful entrances are traumatic. When God finally shows up to answer Job’s questions, he speaks from a whirlwind (Job 38:1). Suddenly, Job doesn’t have any more questions (Job 40:5)! When the earth literally shook at the base of Mt. Sinai because of the presence of God, the entire nation backed away (Exodus 20:18). When the people were bemoaning their life in the desert, the fire of God began to consume the outskirts of their camp (Numbers 11:1).

On the other hand, the power of God is transformative and empowering. When the sound of a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire accompanied the arrival of God’s Spirit, the apostles suddenly became bible translators, preaching in the language of the international crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-4). When the early church prayed, the house shook as the Spirit gave them the boldness to keep speaking about Jesus (Acts 4:31). In the extra hot fiery furnace, Daniel’s three friends were joined by the Son of God rather than being consumed (Daniel 3:19-25).

When our children were still at home, there were moments when I would raise my voice and they (or my wife) would say, “Don’t yell!” So I would turn up the volume and reply, “I haven’t even started to yell yet!” That’s when they would put their hands over their ears.

Yes, there are times when God needs to get my attention. Turn up the volume a little. Even yell. Because I’m not really listening. I might even have my hands over my ears.

Yet there are other times when I’ll say, “What was that, God? Say that again. I’m having a hard time hearing you.”

If God is in whisper mode, you have to pay attention. Listening is hard. You have to stop talking, turn off your mind, get rid of distractions, and let the Scriptures speak. Read slowly, deliberately, without a goal or an agenda. Read out loud. Read it like it was the first time you’ve ever gazed at those words. Imagine you are there when the events happened, the words were first spoken, or when they were first heard. Don’t listen to respond. Listen to what He’s saying.

Though God reveals himself in many powerful ways, he chooses to reveal himself, his love, his grace, and our future through word. Words I understand, words I can remember, words I can repeat. If a whisper gets me to listen, all the better.

 

 

The strange journey of confirmation class

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My most recent confirmation class.

In the life of our church, we baptize most of our children as infants and then raise them in the Christian faith. When they are eleven or twelve years old, I get to teach them the basics of the faith in a systematic way, using Luther’s Small catechism as a guide. After two years of weekly classes, we gather with family, friends and congregation for a “confirmation” of the blessings of their baptisms. That day is a reminder of God’s faithfulness as well as a public confession of their faith. My goal is to provide some tools and encourage them to continue to grow in their faith as they enter their high school years.

I believe I have taught thirty-two groups of middle schoolers. It is a fascinating, only-by-the-grace-of-God journey.

I enjoy teaching this age group because they have so many questions. Late-elementary aged children and high school students tend to think they have all the answers. But in middle school, you’ve learned to ask questions.

I also struggle to teach this age group because most of their parents haven’t done much with them since their baptisms. They may have come to some worship services or been in a few Sunday School classes. But on their twelfth birthday, an alarm goes off, and parents insist, “We have to get you to confirmation class!” Few students are familiar with – and some haven’t even heard of – basic stuff like the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles Creed and the Ten Commandments. Many are cracking open a Bible (or a Bible app) for the first time. When I drop familiar names like Abraham, Moses, David and Paul, I’m interrupted with, “Who’s that?” Each year I am starting from scratch.

But that’s OK, because these students are smart! They are taking algebra and geometry, designing and programming robots, and creatively solving future problems. They are active, involved in athletics, music, dance, and scouts. While the digital world is a second language to me, they’re fluent in it.

It takes about two weeks for them to get comfortable with me. Once they know they can trust me and I am a person with a family, a job and a sense of humor, they let down their guard, their personalities come out, and some real learning can begin. While I want each student to have a growing relationship with the Lord, the second-best part of the journey is developing a relationship with me.

Each student claims they can’t memorize anything. Catechism? Bible verses? Can’t do it. Until we start talking about all the lyrics they can sing, movies they can quote, athletes they know everything about and video game strategies stored in their minds. Until I show them how to memorize with purpose. That exercise will serve them well in other areas of life, too.

Every student grows up a lot, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Especially over the summer between seventh and eighth grade. At the start of year two, everyone not only a few inches taller, but the guys start showering and combing their hair and the girls pay more attention to their hair and begin wearing makeup.

Sin and grace are, of course, big concepts to grapple with. Some students never get in trouble. Others constantly get yelled at by their teachers for no apparent reason. When we try and identify sins to confess, few can get beyond not picking up their room or fighting with a sibling. So the idea of forgiveness doesn’t quite have the same impact. Yet. In the course of the middle school years, they will encounter hatred, jealousy, injustice, bullying, and fear in their own lives or in the lives of their friends. That’s when grace begins to mean something.

I am sure I get more out of this journey than my students. I know from experience that those students who were not active in the church before confirmation classes will not be active after. Those who were will be. It’s that simple. It’s all about their family. I just plug in and do my best to help for a few years.

What do I get out of it?

  • I reinforce my own knowledge of Scripture and the Small Catechism. I am no less a child of God, struggling to remember and understand his promises, and come to grips with both sin and grace.
  • I see God’s Spirit at work in the baptized. I am humbled by how little I can do and how much He can do!
  • I see the timelessness of Scriptural truths. So much has changed in the last thirty-five years, but Jesus has remained the same. He is just as relevant for this generation as my own.
  • I have great hope for the church. While my days are numbered in ministry, theirs are just beginning. I tell them they would make good pastors and teachers leaders. To tell you the truth, someday I hope they are mine!
  • It keeps me young. When you hang out with young people, some of it rubs off on you. I thrive on their contagious energy, laughter and creativity.

It is just as much a journey for me as it is for them!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who can you talk to in a virtual world?

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Photo by Jeremy Cai on Unsplash

Before long, AI will be making phone calls for us. Google demonstrated  this reality a few weeks ago when Google Assistant called and made an appointment with a human stylist. The typical stilted electronic sounding voice of automation has been refined to sound just like a real person, complete with pauses, “ums” and “ahs.”

This opens up so many possibilities and challenges. Previously, we would ask, “With whom am I speaking,” to get a name to refer to later. Now we ask, “Where are you calling from?” knowing that we may be talking to someone in a call center on the other side of the earth. In the future we’ll wonder, “Is this a real person or a computer?”

I can think of a few future scenarios in my own line of work. In the not too far off future, the guest sign in book at church will be an iPad. I won’t have to try and decipher the handwriting anymore since you’ll type in or speak your name and email. Later that afternoon or evening, you’ll get a phone call that sounds like me, but will actually be my digital assistant who has found your phone number and contacted you. On Monday morning when I check my calendar, I’ll have an appointment with that’s week’s visitors, all arranged by AI. I’ll be able to glance over information about you and your family gleaned from your social media accounts, fuel for our conversation. (And yes, my self-driving car will take me to your home so I can download my computer-generated sermon on the way.)

I know, that scenario is out there, but it made me wonder about our pursuit of avoiding human contact. Just think of all the ways we no longer have to talk to a person.

  • I get my cash from an ATM, no longer interacting with a teller inside the bank.
  • I order food or coffee with an app or at a kiosk in the restaurant, and then grab it off a shelf.
  • I do the majority of my shopping online. I rarely see anyone drop packages off at my door. They just magically appear!
  • I ask my phone for directions instead of a person. It routes me around accidents and traffics snarls, too.
  • I wonder what percentage of my human interactions take place via text or email? Honestly, I’d guess more than half.

My experiences only scratch this reality that isolates us more and more each day.

  • Virtual schools now replace some brick and mortar classrooms and flesh and blood teachers.
  • Your resume or application has been vetted by AI long before someone in human resources or a loan officer ever lays eyes on it.
  • How many people diagnose their own ailments and treat their own diseases by consulting online resources rather than going to the doctor?
  • You no longer have to go to the store for groceries, dealing with all those annoying people who clog up the aisles and make you wait in line. Your digital order will arrive later this afternoon.

I love the possibilities of AI, am fascinated by the technology, and love to discover what I can do. But how many have adopted these technologies to avoid human contact? Do those who don’t like or fear their classmates, teachers, and coworkers find refuge in a virtual world? No doubt. What about those seeking to avoid illness, judgment, conflict, prejudice or hatred? Probably. Or if you just want your own way, without having to persuade, convince or compromise, it can be quite satisfying, I guess.

Well, it’s not going to go away. It’s going to infiltrate just about every area of our lives. And even though I tend to be a private person who enjoys alone time, I can’t stay there. Not for too long, anyway.

I get so much more accomplished when I actually talk to a person. A few minutes of conversation can be so much more productive than an endless volley of texts or emails over several hours or days.

Talking to someone in person is the best. Whether it’s a difficult visit or one I’ve looked forward to, face-to-face is always better than my anticipations. I think we’re wired that way.

Laughter, sorrow, anger, enthusiasm, inspiration, and calmness all seem to be contagious. Catching emotion from those around us makes me feel something. It makes me feel alive.

I enjoy teaching. Which means I like being with someone or a room full of students, asking questions, giving examples, sharing experiences, listening to ideas and conveying understanding. Classrooms are alive!

I love music, too. I can sit and play for hours. But it’s so much more fun to play in a band or sing with a group!

I know too many widows and widowers who now have to eat alone. It’s no fun. I know too many young people whose human interaction has been so limited they have a hard time with conversation. That’s frustrating. Too many have surrendered to abusive behavior because they had no one to tell, and no one to teach them differently. That’s tragic. Too many have turned to violence because they knew no other way to relate to the world around them. That is frightening.

Don’t worry, you won’t become obsolete in a digital world. There’s someone who needs you to talk to them. Someone real. Someone just like you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going to church in an age of mass shootings

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Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

It has happened in schools and movie theaters, on military bases and college campuses, in nightclubs and churches. Someone walks in and opens fire, killing and wounding innocent people.

Yes, it’s happened churches. How has this reality changed the dynamic of going to church? As the pastor of a Lutheran church, I never worried about it very much till a few years ago. Our church doors are still open every Sunday and we still welcome anyone and everyone who wants to worship. But somethings have changed. Here are a few of my observations:

More worshipers are carrying weapons

I don’t know who all is carrying on a Sunday morning, but I know that the number has grown over the last year. With holsters or purses designed to be inconspicuous, the person sitting next to you in church may well have a permit and a handgun with them. I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I feel good knowing that these folks have taken steps to protect themselves and the congregation. On the other hand, I pray that they have taken some classes and know how to use the weapon safely.

We now have an emergency plan

A few of our members who have been police officers, military or security have sat down and developed an emergency plan, should a threat arise. The plan includes dealing with medical, fire and storm emergencies, as well as violence. They make a conscious effort to keep an eye on the room where we gather for worship, taking note of anything out of the ordinary. I’m thankful for those who bring that training and experience to the table.

Such times are not without precedent in the bible. When Nehemiah was overseeing the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem after the return from Babylonian exile, half of the workers did construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. Some of the workers held a tool in one hand and a weapon in the other (Nehemiah 4:16,17).

We are better at welcoming guests

Things have calmed down recently, but for a few months we were on edge. We carefully watch anyone arriving for worship whom we don’t recognize. I know that sounds a little unfriendly, but it actually enhanced our welcome. We make a concerted effort to welcome and get to know our guests.

One morning a young many with a backpack arrived for worship on a bicycle. After entering the church, he left his backpack in the back row while he went out to lock up his bike. The pulse of the sopranos and altos began to race as they watched this happen from the front row of the choir loft. The gentleman returned to his seat and worshiped with us without any incident.

We have a remote alert system

We’ve installed what some have called a “panic button.” It’s really just a way for me to alert the elder and ushers to something going on. From the front of the church, I can see everything happening in the room, while most of the worshipers are facing the altar. If I see someone come in late who needs help or see something out of the ordinary in the entryway, I can push a button, a small light flashes in front of them, and I have their attention. I have not had to actually use this yet, and I’d be fine never having to use it.

We are more thankful than ever for the freedom to worship

Along with the uncertainty of what might happen on any given day, we enjoy a freedom to worship that is still one of God’s greatest blessings. We ought never take that for granted.

It has not always been this way. Early Christians met in secret to worship, knowing that if they were caught they could be put to death. Conditions were much the same not that long ago in the Soviet Union and China.

I have worshiped in inner city churches where iron gates at the front door were locked when worship began and did not open until it was time to go home. The shadow of similar iron bars could be seen through the stained-glass windows. Yes, it was that kind of a neighborhood.

I have worshiped in other countries, where every gas station was protected by armed attendants and an armed guard accompanied us to church where the ushers all had nine millimeter handguns on their belts. The worship – in a language I didn’t know – was vibrant, Spirit-filled, heart-felt, and well-guarded.

My greatest fear

Having said all that, my greatest fear has nothing to do with weapons or shooters. The greatest danger we face is that parents do not bring their children to church. For a wide variety of reasons, so many mothers and fathers do not regularly avail themselves of our freedom to worship, teaching the next generation that it is not important. If we do not raise our children in the fear and knowledge of the Lord, will religious freedom mean anything to them? If that freedom is threatened, limited, or taken away, will they even care? Or will it have no effect on their lifestyle at all?

That’s what frightens me.