This morning I was reading about the woman who poured out a jar of expensive nard on Jesus’ head (Mark 14:3-9). While some thought it was a waste, Jesus said it was a nice thing to do before his burial.
This got me thinking: why don’t we do and say nice things for people while they are still around?
Eulogies are filled with the praises of those who have died. In fact, most I’ve heard describe the deceased as the nicest, most generous and least selfish person they ever met in their life. And I am glad that’s how you knew that person. But why not tell them while they’re alive? Why not make the phone call or visit and tell them? Or send a note?
Many deaths are followed by generous gifts given to the church or another charitable organization in their memory. That’s all well and good. But what if you had used that money to go and visit them, take them out to lunch, and create a memory that way?
You’ll never be able to make up for lost time at or after a funeral. But you can say something or do something nice today. And it will never be a waste.
Lately my prayers have been more listening than speaking.
Does that sentence surprise you? It surprises me. Most of the time I’ve spent learning about prayer and teaching about prayer focused on figuring out what to say, when to say it and how often to say it. But I’ve also always taught that prayer is a conversation with God. Which means you’ll listen as well as speak. You might even listen a lot more than you speak.
My devotional time is typically early morning. It’s nothing profound or fancy. I just read through the bible. Chapter by chapter. From Genesis through Revelation. Right now I am mostly through Mark. I read till something grabs my interest or I have a question or I gain some insight. I usually read just a chapter or two. I’ve actually started listening to the scriptures being read on an iPhone app (biblegateway.com) as I follow along.
I always used to think of this as study, which would be followed by some prayer. Then one morning I realized that this whole process was prayer. God was doing most of the talking. My response wasn’t nearly as much as he had to say, which is no doubt a good thing. I know he’ll listen and I know I can say anything, but it usually turns out better when my words are fewer than his.
Realizing this has been freeing and refreshing.
I never have to wonder what to say. All I need to add is, “Amen!” (Yes, he’s that good!)
Other times, his words become my response. He never minds if I use his words to form my prayers.
Sometimes I just ask a question. “What do you mean by that?” “What does that have to do with me?” “So what am I supposed to do?”
His words have a way of bringing to mind people I can pray for. Or a blessing I am thankful for. Or a problem that’s nagging me. Or a sin that’s haunting
And then there are those times when I say nothing at all. Grace will do that to you. Grace will silence your excuses, denials, explanations, blame and guilt. Grace is always the final word. All you can really say to grace is, “Thanks.”
So it turns out that even though it’s mostly listening, I’ve been doing more praying than ever.
On the heels of my last post, I’ve been musing about the parts of the body listed in 1 Corinthians 12. I like the way Paul asks, “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell” (v17). Of course everyone isn’t an eye, or an ear, or a nose. But some people are, and I think that’s fascinating.
Some people are “eyes” and see things I might miss. They see the things God is doing. Or they see the needs people have. They see miracles happen all the time.
Some people are “ears,” and hear things I might miss. They hear nuances in people’s voices, hearing more than just the words spoken. They hear what someone is really trying to say.
I guess that means some people are noses, too. They know when the coffee is brewing, the wine is uncorked and the flowers have arrived. They can tell when something (or someone) is a little too ripe. They know it’s time to open the windows and air the place out.
Others are hands. They know the power of touch. Some are feet. They are quick to arrive somewhere.
All I want to know is, “What do you see? What do you hear? Or smell? How does it feel? Where did you go?” I might miss the things you think are obvious. Make sure you share them with me!
In the sermon this morning, I talked a little about being “indispensable.” It came up in the context of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he writes, “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:22).
Who is indispensable in the life of the church? One might be tempted to say, “the pastor.” I would disagree. I am blessed to have a number of retired pastors worshiping with our congregation. I asked them, “When you retired, did they shut the doors of the church? Did the ministry fold?” Of course not. That church called another pastor. The ministry continued. Rather than being indispensable, we pastors are quite replaceable.
I think this is an important part of longevity in the ministry. The church was here before me. It will be here when I’m gone. What happens when you think of yourself as disposable, dispensable and replaceable? All kinds of good things!
First, you value God and other people much more. As your importance decreases, theirs increases. God’s eternal. He’s always around. He’s the one you want to depend on.
And other people? They are the reason you get to be a pastor. They are the ones you’ve been called to shepherd. They are the ones who need to hear the voice of their shepherd. And you are the one called to preach the word. You wouldn’t have a job without them. I so enjoy preaching, teaching and administering the sacraments. But I wouldn’t get to do any of it were it not for our Lord’s sacrificial love for his people.
Second, you let others shine. You are not the main event. They are. They reach many more people than I ever will. I spend most of my time with those who believe, who are already saved. But the congregation is out there in the world, where they live and where they work. They are out there on the front lines, living out their faith. They know, talk to and witness to people I will never meet. I may help equip them for that task, but they are the ones who actually engage in it.
Finally, you marvel at the work of his hands. You appreciate all those who come to listen week after week. You thank God for all those who daily pray for you. You are grateful for those who make it possible for you to do what you do. And you are motivated to do your best – for their sake. They need to hear,; you get to preach. Actually, you need to preach. It’s a part of who you are. But you couldn’t do it without them. They are indispensable.
A few days ago, I wrote about a prayer breakfast I attended to support our local pregnancy center. At that breakfast, a man representing a local church had a moment to share a story before he closed the event with prayer. It’s worth sharing here.
He daily attended mass, and that morning, the homily was given by “the “liberal priest.” By liberal, he meant one who wasn’t as anti-abortion as this gentleman. The essence of the homily spoke about justice for women, whose lives had to be considered as well as the unborn.
The gentleman at our breakfast took issue with this and stayed to speak to the priest after mass. He took the priest to task, pointing out that the church had always done much for life, from building hospitals and nursing homes, to cooking and distributing food, to assisting in foster care and adoption, in ministering to the homeless, in seeking justice for those in prison, and providing hospice care for the dying. Such care was provided for both female and male alike. Protecting unborn life was the necessary starting place in caring for life, a task that continued through all stages of life and death.
The thing that impressed me about this the most is that the person who shared the story had no intention of leaving his church because of the comments made that day. He was not afraid to discuss the issues and if necessary, disagree, even with the priest. He wasn’t going anywhere. His devotion and commitment to God could weather a debate on the sanctity of life.
I found this incredibly refreshing. From my experience, members of the church quickly head for the door when they disagree with something they hear from the pulpit. They seek out a place where they can hear what they want to hear. And it doesn’t take much. It can be a single word they didn’t like. Or something they interpret as politically partisan. Or a point that hits a little too close to home and makes them feel guilty. Rather than discussing the issue or making their position known or simply asking some questions, they do not return.
This tendency makes me nervous in another way, too. It makes me wonder whether the church is more connected to me or to the Lord. While my time in the pulpit is finite, the Word of the Lord lasts forever. I certainly hope your devotion and commitment aren’t contingent on me. If so, we are both in a lot of trouble.
This past Advent and Christmas, I experimented with setting my iPhone in front of the church so that the service and sermon could be on Facebook live. It certainly wasn’t an elegant solution, just easy. Those watching only saw me during the sermon, but they could hear the rest of the service. I figured there is always someone who can’t get out, who can watch and listen and worship with us. They can even watch later since the video is saved indefinitely.
Right after the first of the year, I did a memorial service in our chapel. Some who would have attended couldn’t, so I set up my phone and they got to join us virtually.
So I started setting my phone out on Sunday mornings, too. I discovered that I had an audience. Some were former members who had moved to Wisconsin. Other viewers’ worship service had been cancelled due to a big winter storm in the Midwest. There were some who were sick and stayed home to rest.
I’ve been to churches that had multiple television cameras in the sanctuary to broadcast their worship services. I never thought something like that would be possible with the phone I usually keep in my pocket. Yet here we are, broadcasting live.
This morning (January 22) I attended a prayer breakfast hosted by Alpha Women’s Center, a ministry the congregation and I have supported for over seventeen years in Flagler County, FL. I had been invited to say a prayer for the center as well, something I readily agreed to do.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, since I don’t believe they have had an event like this before. But under the leadership of the current director, Wilma Williams, they are working hard to encourage and expand their footprint in the county.
The event was held in a very small church cafe in Flagler Beach, just barely big enough to hold the thirty folks who attended. At least four other pastors attended, plus representative from a number of other congregations. The meal of quiche, fruit, muffins and oatmeal was just right and delicious.
The guest speaker was Cindy Johanson, the executive director of the Central Florida Pregnancy Center in Deltona, FL. The occasion of her talk was a sober reminder of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade was handed down on January 22, 1973, lifting restrictions on abortion in the United States. Since then, the lives of over 60,000,000 children have been ended by abortion.
Her words were also encouraging. Currently, there are over 3,000 pregnancy centers in the United States. There are 800 abortion clinics. The work of so many for life has increased dramatically.
She pointed out that when someone is dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, all they see is a life or death issue. The birth of a child often threatens plans for education, career, and relationships. Those who work to protect and preserve life know that there are many more options, and are glad to speak about the possibilities with any who seek out help. While those who end life make a profit, those who work to save it do not make a penny. Rather, we make great sacrifices to provide these services.
None of what Alpha does would be possible had not God placed a burden for life in each heart who lifted up prayers today. We pray to the God who gives us life and breath and everything else, that he would continue to bring life to our families and communities. We pray to the God who came to sacrifice his own life for us so that we could live. We pray to the God who accompanies us through the valley of the shadow of death to life.
As I was about to leave, I overheard a conversation between a college student and her pastor. She had used her wonderful musical talents to play a few songs for the meeting. But I heard her say, “Remind me again what Roe v. Wade is.” What an important reminder to keep talking about the issues, the history, and our part in it. We cannot assume that all have heard or understand the issues. We cannot assume they know what is at stake. Communication and information are powerful and essential. The opposing side works hard at this. So must we.
I had a few hours to wait for some service to be done on my car, so walked up U.S. from Coggin Honda in St. Augustine to Panera Bread in Cobblestone Village. It was a really nice morning, so I didn’t mind the walk at all. I was wearing a pair of jeans, a hoodie, some old sneakers, my backpack containing some things to read and work on when I got to my coffee destination.
On the way I passed a number of people walking and riding bikes. After a few nods and “Hi’s” I realized that I looked just like them. You wouldn’t think that would be a revelation. But when I am driving along that same stretch of road, my mind immediately assigns the label “homeless” to these folks. Now on foot, I wondered, “I wonder what label they’re putting on me?”
Not my name. Not my profession. Not someone having their car serviced. Not someone on their way for coffee. They know nothing about where I live, my relationships, my faith, or how healthy I am.
I don’t know that about them, either. That’s a good reminder when I begin to assume they don’t have a home, don’t have a job, and haven’t had a meal. Or when I characterize them as not having relationships, education or ambition. It doesn’t take much to visually characterize someone in a negative way. It doesn’t take much at all.
I don’t like that about myself. I don’t like the way my mind immediately sizes someone up, usually in a disparaging way. I don’t even know where that tendency comes from. Where did I learn that?
It’s good to walk around in jeans and a t-shirt, being seen – but not known. It disciplines my heart and mind so that I am not so quick to draw conclusions. It clears my head of shallow assumptions. It helps me notice rather than look through those around me. It teaches me humility, kindness and grace. Cause when it comes down to it, I am just like them.
In the good old days before online shopping, I would go to the store, look over the available products, and select one to buy. I’d pick the one that looked good, felt good, and was priced right. Do you remember those days?
I shop on line now. As do many of you. This means I buy a lot of things sight unseen. So I read the reviews. Positive reviews. Negative reviews. And some in-between. In a crazy, scary way, these reviews control my purchases. People I don’t even know are controlling my shopping habits.
And here is what I have noticed: negative reviews wield much power over me. A product may have, let’s say, one hundred reviews. 90% are four or five stars. I will read the one star reviews, the ten percent, to learn why this product is junk and the seller a piece of slime.
The negative responses usually go something like this:
“Worked for ten minutes, then quit.”
“Instructions were vague; assembly took three days.”
“Arrived broken, seller unresponsive, and my life sucks.”
You know what? I tend to listen to the negative. I read about all the things that go wrong, and decide I need to buy something else. Something better. Something of quality. Whatever. People I don’t even know are controlling my shopping habits!
OK, Bill, take a deep breath. Who is writing these reviews? “Verified purchasers?” How do I know that’s true? Satisfied customers? Unsatisfied customers? Who knows.
Most of the time – the majority of the time – I’ve been happy with my purchases. And they had nothing to do with the reviews. I am not a bad judge of quality. I know that my purchase comes from China (duh!). And I know I can send it back for a refund. No harm. No foul.
You can either choose to be controlled by someone else’s opinion. Or your own discernment. My inner voice is valid, too.