No van for you.

I made the reservation in March. I had someone call the week before to confirm the reservation. Which they did.

And yet at the end of June, just five days before our youth group was schedule to leave on their mission trip, a gravely female voice from the rental company informed me, “We won’t have a van for you.”

“What do you mean? We have a reservation. We made the reservation months ago and you said we were all set.”

“All I know is that we won’t have a van.”

Great. The kids have been planning and saving up money for this trip for six months. And that is the best you can do for me? It’s not like, “OK, I’ll just try someone else.” There aren’t many places where you can rent a fifteen passenger van. And not at the peak of mission trip season. I know, the thirteen of scripture – Jesus and twelve disciples – got to their mission sites on foot. But our eleven kids and two leaders had to get from Palm Coast, FL to Chattanooga, TN. It was this Seinfeld episode in real life!

We had this problem five years ago. The same company claimed to not even have our reservation a week before departure. I had to shake the bushes to come up with a member’s minivan and another’s pickup truck. I swore I would never use this company again. Yet, I gave them another chance. And now I had to live with that decision.

My office manager got on the phone and you know what? Within half-an-hour, she had located a fifteen person van from another company. The words, “What are we going to do now, Lord” were barely out of our mouths. The pickup arrangements were more complicated, but we could have it in time for the kid’s trip.

As you can tell, though, the story isn’t over. I took one of our leaders down to a little airport where the van had been left on the top deck of a parking garage. When we drove through the airport, that garage was full and the ramp closed. So I dropped him, he scrambled up the stains, found the key lock box and was soon on his way with a van. It was Saturday, less than a day before the group’s scheduled departure. Yes. Thank you, Lord.

A few hours later, I got a call. “There’s only room for eleven people in the van.” “What? It’s a fifteen person van.” “Yes, but the back seat isn’t in it.” Great. I got on the phone and called the number they gave me for questions. The person fielding questions knew how to prep a van for rental, but not much more. “Uh, can you bring it by tomorrow?” “No. The group is leaving first thing in the morning tomorrow.”

Deep breath. I need two more spaces. One of the leaders drive? No, that won’t work. Have one of the youth drive? That doesn’t sound legit. But one of them is over eighteen, has his own car… That was our eventual solution. He would drive himself and take a friend who’s mom said could ride along. They made it there safely and back, and faithfully served that community with other churches and youth.

One of the top three principles I had learned on mission trips to third-world countries is “be flexible.” Much of a trip won’t go according to plan. Times, people, places and equipment will be different than you expect. You better pray that God pours out that spiritual gift on your group, because you’re going to need it!

I won’t throw these van companies under the bus in this piece. There’s only two in Jacksonville, FL. You can figure out who they are.

My safe place

We’ll be hearing about and getting ready for a hurricane to hit Florida for the next four or five days. It’s the kind of event that has many wondering how to be safe in the path of a storm.

Hit the road and get out of town? Shutter the windows and stay inside? Seek out a shelter made to withstand a storm like this?

We too often hear about mass shootings in public places, from movie theaters to outdoor concerts to schools and church gatherings. How can we be safe in a world where violence could walk in the door at any moment? Hire security? Keep the doors locked? Carry a weapon to protect yourself?

It’s dangerous to drive on an interstate highway. There are constant warnings about traveling abroad. Those who call or email may not be who they claim to be, trying to take advantage of us.

We will never find a truly safe place in this world. But we can find security in someone. Lest we forget that truth, the psalmist reminds us that “God is our refuge and strength” (Psalm 46:1). He is our safe place.

It takes a little faith to grasp this truth, doesn’t it? My mind doesn’t think of God as a place. He’s more like a person. But those words remind me of Jesus’ teaching, “Abide in me” (John 15:6). He calls himself a place where we can hang out. Or how about Paul’s words from Romans 8:1 “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Of course, those words speak of faith. But they also create a faith I can picture, where some of those threats I mentioned can’t really hurt me. Physically, sure. Life has all kinds of aches and pains and eventually death. But in him, nothing can really rob me of life. So he is a very safe place.

I try to keep that in mind when people or the news try to make me install a security system or arm myself. I have nothing against any of those things. But ultimately, he is my safe place.

Ghosted.

Yep, it happened again. Been there. Done that. And it won’t be the last time, either. But now, I have a word to describe the experience: ghosted. You’ve been ghosted when someone you know suddenly breaks off all contact with you and disappear, like a ghost.

My most recent experience was with an older woman who worshiped with us for about four weeks. A few weeks gets you a phone call and a post card. Three or four weeks, and I call to thank them for coming and ask for a visit. this person, pretty quiet on a Sunday morning, was hyper-talkative when I called. I learned so much about where she’s lived, her husband who died about nine years ago, and her recent experiences with churches that prompted her to visit us. She had grown up Lutheran, felt at home, and asked me, “Can I join the church?”

“Sure,” I said. “We’d be glad to have you. I’ll see you Sunday.”

That was the last time I talked with her. She never returned to worship. Did not answer phone calls or reply to voice mail messages. I had been ghosted. Just like that.

Her elder said to me, “I talked with her. She isn’t interested in coming to our church anymore.”

On my side of the equation, I was puzzled. Confused. Annoyed. Okay, I’ll admit it, angry. Why would you say that? Why would you do that? If you don’t want to worship with us, that’s fine. Go where you feel comfortable. I’m OK with that.

Maybe I need to imagine myself in her shoes. Her last church hurt her. We were her “rebound” church. Nice for a time, but certainly not for a lifetime. We were just a rest stop in her spiritual journey.

And that’s OK. We are here to proclaim, to serve, and to minister to all sorts of people looking for hope, light, peace, forgiveness or direction. They may stay for a long time. They may just stop in for a moment. We may simply be a stepping stone. A motel.

Some church will be blessed because we preached the gospel, we made her feel welcome, we recharged her batteries for her next endeavor. They will be blessed by her presence, her worship and her prayers. It’s like an assist in basketball or hockey. People keep close track of those things, because you can’t win without them.

Taking it to the streets

Someone left an organ out on the curb for pickup by whoever. There has to be some kind of story that goes with this…

“After squandering most of his earnings from a long Broadway run, the phantom of the opera jumped on a Craigslist curb alert…”

“Kids playing ball in the street were treated to genuine stadium organ music…”

“These folks didn’t quite understand the question when asked, ‘Would you like to be an organ donor?'”

“Break a leg!”

“This is our choir loft. Now all we have to do is build a church around it.”

“Pastor, we thought the church might be able to use an extra organ. You can pick up it in front of our home…”

“That’s it. We are finally getting ‘organized.’ I have the perfect place for this beauty.”

I’ll leave the comments open for this one. How would you start your story?

Sometimes, God opens a window or leaves a door ajar

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

One of the hardest things to do is wait for an opportunity to proclaim the gospel. As a pastor, I have that opportunity every Sunday morning. But the rest of the week, I have to listen for what I can best describe as door left ajar, a question or a comment that immediately shouts, “Tell them the gospel!” I love it when God simply cracks a window or creates a moment. I had that happen two times in the last month.

The first was a conversation with Brad (not his real name) who was dying, hard to understand, but still hanging on to life. i don’t know if it was a test or a genuine inquiry: “How good do you have to be to get into heaven?” O boy, when I hear that question, I have to take a breath and pull myself together to give them some very good news: you don’t have to be good. Jesus was good enough for you. His righteousness is yours. Heaven is your eternal home because of him. Sentences that fill me with joy; sentences I hope filled him, too.

Moment number two. Visiting Andy, also dying, I asked, “Are you ready?” He said, “I’m scared.” I asked, “What are you afraid of?” He said, “The darkness.”

Once again, I had to take a deep breath and pace myself. I had so much to say, but most importantly, “In [Christ] there is no darkness.” He knew that. He had been faithful for ninety-plus years. He just needed to hear it again.

Short, simple conversations filled with gospel hope. Thank you, Jesus, for being the answer to so many worries, concerns and questions!

Ministry tip #whatever: caffeinate before afternoon visits

I do my best creative work and writing in the mornings. For me, ideas and content flow effortlessly before noon.

My brain starts to get mushy after lunch, so that’s when I need to get out and do something else. So I use my afternoons are better for visiting folks at home, in the hospital, in nursing homes, for wherever.

There is a part of my brain, however, that suggests that I take a nap after lunch. Sometimes I do that. But I try not to do that when out for a visit. That’s where caffein comes in. In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m slamming a tall Pike before a visit to a homebound member.

You see, I’ve been visiting this person for a long time. After a certain number of monthly visits, I’ve heard most of the stories. However, I must listen to them again. And again. And again. That is when active listening becomes difficult, my eyelids begin to feel heavy, and I start to get very, very sleepy…

It’s embarrassing to do that little head jerk when a blink of an eye turns into a few seconds and suddenly your mind yanks you back into reality. To fend that off, I’ll try flexing my biceps and quads, squeezing the arm of the chair, and sitting forward, leaning in to listen more attentively.

Oope. I probably shouldn’t have revealed that. Some who read this may notice the tightening of my arm muscles or me leaning forward with my arms on my knees. You’ll see my hands clench on the chair and you’ll know I’m trying as hard as I can to stay awake.

Here’s the thing. Some of the folks I visit don’t often have someone to talk to. Even the married ones. So they have many things to say. Many things. And they have mastered the art of weaving their story together into one long, continuous sentence that is very hard to interrupt. Those who are good at this can go thirty minutes or more, as each part of their story reminds them of another person or another place that leads to other memories and details that connects to yet further events and recollections from the past.

I listen as best I can. I really do. Someday, I know the tables will be turned and I will be starving for someone to talk to, and I will keep my guest as long as I can by weaving together a complex tapestry of the story of my life to keep them there just a few more minutes.

Occasionally, I get caught with my eyes shut. Uh-oh. That’s embarrassing. It’s just a moment, but I got caught just the same. Graciously, my visit-ees usually say, “You look tired, pastor.” I guess you could make sure you have some coffee on when I come to visit. Just remember it’s got to be strong, black and hopefully not Maxwell House or Folgers.

So, for those who aspire to ministry that includes the care of souls, here my tip number whatever: caffeinate early and often.

Why was I so surprised?

Why are we so surprised when God answers our prayer in just the way we wanted? OK, why am I so surprised?

It wasn’t a complicated request. It wasn’t even for me. It was for a friend of mine who needed a medical procedure, but couldn’t get scheduled for three months. I told them I’d put in a request for them, and simply prayed that God would bump up their appointment.

A few days later, I got a call, and they let me know that an appointment opened up just three weeks from then. They were so tickled that they called me right away to let me know. I was pretty tickled, too. Amazed, actually.

But why be amazed? Why doubt for a moment that God knows and deeply cares about the things that weigh on our hearts and minds? I guess there are many possible answers to that question.

I guess a part of us feels like it’s a long shot to ask God for something. Why would he do anything for us? After all, what have we done for him lately? He’s got to wade through a lot of prayer requests from a lot of faithful people who have much bigger issues than a doctor’s appointment.

Either that, or a part of me feels like I don’t deserve any favors from God. Which is entirely true. I know what I deserve, and it certainly isn’t good. But we ask anyway, because scripture tells us over and over again that God is merciful, that God hears and that God cares deeply about my worries, concerns, fears and desires.

Even though I pray for a lot of people and about a lot of issues, I rarely find out how those prayers were answered. We should share these blessings more often. It’s good to be reminded of and tickled by God’s grace. It’s awesome to be surprised by his love and goodness.

And I like to believe he’s tickled when he surprises us with a blessing, too!

My top ten “Dad” memories

After the recent death of my 95 year old father, I stopped to list my top ten memories of him. Most of them are from many years ago, but they are all vivid in my mind.

10 – My Dad usually got paid on Fridays, which for him meant going to the bank to cash his check. I remember watching him divide up that cash into various envelopes for church, food, mortgage, clothes, etc. He was raised and lived most of his life in a cash world without credit (or credit card debt). When I read about money-management systems that emulate cash envelopes, I always think about Dad. He was either ahead of his time, or there truly was nothing new under the sun.

9 – One summer, instead of going somewhere for vacation, Dad put an above ground pool in our backyard. Since much of our yard was on a giant hill – great for sledding in the winter, tough to mow in the summer – it was a major project to level out a 15 foot diameter level circle for the pool. But we loved it! You can do a lot of laps in a 15 foot pool without surfacing to take a breath. You can do a lot of snorkling too. I believe that was one of our best summer vacations!

8 – My Dad was an electrical engineer in the 50’s through the 70’s, which meant he went to work in a white short-sleeved shirt and tie. My mom would send his work shirts out to be washed, bleached, starched and pressed at the local cleaners. When they picked them up and brought them home, each was folded around a rectangular piece of cardboard. As kids, we loved those pieces of cardboard for drawing and coloring.

7 – In the summer, Dad would often sit on the back steps and smoke a cigar. Usually a Phillies blunt. Sometimes I would sit out there with him and just talk about whatever, throw a ball for the dog, or just watch the sunset yield to the night. Just before the ash fell, he would tap it into his palm and toss it out into the grass. It was all about the timing.

6 – One summer, when I was in elementary school, Dad went to a salvage yard and bought a whole bunch of wooden planks. After we pulled all the old nails out of those planks, he helped me and my neighborhood friends build a “fort” at the bottom of the hill in our backyard. It certainly wasn’t fancy, but it did have a window and door, shingles on the roof, a dark green coat of paint, and a door. My friends and I spent a lot of time playing in that fort.

5 – My Dad had played some high school baseball and had a glove from the 1930’s that was much different from the baseball gloves of the 1960’s and beyond. The baseball gloves of my generation were huge baskets, but his was little bigger than his hand. His glove meant you had to use two hands to catch. The gloves of my generation let you use one hand to grab the nastiest grounders. Dad spent a lot of time teaching me to throw and catch, a skill that kept me busy with friends for many years.

4 – My Dad commuted to work in Camden, NJ and Philadelphia, so he was usually the first one up in the morning. His go to breakfast was Wheaties. Every morning, he would be up about 5:30 am he would be up eating a bowl of Wheaties with milk before he got dressed and caught the train to work. I remember getting up early just so I could sit with him and have a bowl of cereal and enjoy his company before he went off to to work and I walked to school.

3- Speaking of vegetables, Dad always had an all-star garden. He grew tomatoes, peas, green beans, peas, beets, carrots, kohlrabi and radishes. In front of our house, though, he planted and cared for beautiful flower gardens. From tulip and hyacinth bulbs in the spring to gorgeous azaleas and mums, the front our house was a gallery of color.

2 – My Mom was a pretty good piano player, and she would sometimes play classic sing along tunes that my Dad would harmonize to. The song I especially remember is “Moonlight Bay.” Sitting in church next to Dad, we learned to harmonize to many church hymns.

1 – When my brother and sister were old enough, Mom went to work on weekends. She was a nurse and picked up weekend shifts at the local hospital. My Dad had to make supper and feed us. His go to meal was Hamburger Helper, or sometimes, just browned hamburger and brown gravy. We ate this along with bounty from his garden, which usually included green beans, tomatoes, radishes, kohlrabi, carrots and in the early spring, lettuce. He also made some instant mashed potatoes for the gravy. We grew up thinking he was a pretty good cook!

There you go – my memories of Dad, each of which brings a smile to my face!

The “Manager’s Special”

After I recently booked a flight on an airline website, they gave me the option of renting a car, which I would need for a few days at my destination. To my surprise, the most affordable option that popped up was from Hertz. Usually they are the highest priced rentals, so I usually go with Alamo, Thrifty, Budget, whatever. I was taken in by a nice low daily rate, and also the promise of the “Manager’s Special.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded good. I booked a car for a few days.

When I got to the airport and went to the rental counter, everything was in order and I was directed to the area where I could pick any car I wanted from section 3. I walked through aisles and aisles of cars in sections 1 and 2, and finally arrived at section three, where just three cars were parked.

The first one I went to, a Hyundai Accent, didn’t look too bad. But when I walked around, I saw it had a cracked tail light. So I decided to check out the small Toyota just a few spots away.

It was an iA. Never saw one of those before. When I tried the doors, though, they were all locked. The keys were inside the car, but I couldn’t get in. I looked around to see if anyone could help me. The little rental hut for Hertz was about a mile away, and there was no other human being in sight. So forget that one.

I still had a third choice. An even small white Toyota Yaris was parked at the end of the row. It was a little smaller than I wanted, but it was just for a few days, so I figured why not. When I reached in to get the key, it was just that, a key. No fob, no automatic locking doors. Roll up windows, too. When I tried the key in the hatch to put my suitcase in, the key wouldn’t even turn in the lock. My experience just kept getting better and better.

I went back to the first car and made sure the tail light still worked. I also made sure to show it to the attendant at the exit gate. She didn’t seem all that concerned. She made a note on the rental agreement, and without a smile said, “Have a nice day.”

Now that I understand how the “Manager’s Special” works, I’m pretty sure I’ll be passing up that offer in the future.