My AI friends

“Alexa, turn off living room.” Living room light goes dark.

“Hey Siri, set a timer for 6 minutes.” Her female voice replies, “Six minutes, starting now.” I close the lid on the grill and wait for the timer to beep.

“Alexa, play K-Love.” The house is filled with music.

“Hey Siri, set an alarm for 3:00.” Just so I don’t nap too long.

“Alexa, what’s my notification?” “You have one new notification. Your item will arrive today.” Now what did I order?

“Hey Siri, what’s on my calendar for tomorrow?” “You have six events…”

My four-year-old grandson yells, “Alexa! Play the garbage truck song by Blippi.” And off we go.

“Alexa, play Blue Bloods on Netflix.” The TV comes to life and we pick up exactly where we left off the last time we watched.

Just like me, many of you have similar conversations during the day with Siri and Alexa (and maybe Google). We talk with, consult and ask favors of an artificial intelligence who generally responds with exactly what we want. From time to time there is a misunderstanding. But most of the time, the conversation is short and sweet and satisfying.

In a sense, there is another person in the room. Just like a Downton Abbey “valet.” Or a personal assistant. Or your mom, I guess. Someone who is there to attend to your needs. She was novel at first. Then it became a game. And now I don’t even think twice about my commands and requests.

I’m fascinated by how quickly this technology became a part of my everyday routine. It is only a matter of time before my “assistant” anticipate my wants or needs. She will know when to turn on the lights, the music or the TV. She will predict what I am likely to buy online. She will adjust the temperature in the house, remind me of a dentist appointment, and schedule an oil change for the car.

I like this. Some are afraid of this. I appreciate the help and the reminder. Others will balk at the loss of privacy. No matter how you feel, this is the future. And it’s not far away.

Nutcrackers in every shape and size

I rounded a corner at Hobby Lobby and was awed by this display of nutcrackers. And they are all 50% off!

But just look at the selection! I see Santas and snowmen, good and bad witches from Oz, magi and a lumberjack, a firefighter and a sheriff, and even the traditional ballet character in all different sizes.

I find it fascinating when “Christmas decor” morphs into characters from every walk of life. Snowmen, Santas and the nativity of Jesus have all been down this path. The Nutcracker is in good company.

Death just isn’t convenient.

I was talking to the last few people to leave church yesterday when a friend told me, “I had a question posed to me. Someone asked, ‘Why did you schedule ______’s memorial service for a Thursday?'”

“Well,” I said, “First of all, just about everyone he knew is retired, so I didn’t think it really mattered which day I picked. Plus the only family he has, his neices, will be in town that week, and I wanted to include them if possible.”

And then I added, “Death just isn’t convenient, is it?” We both just smiled.

That afternoon I pondered the wisdom and truth of my words. Death isn’t convenient. It always interrupts our schedules, routines and habits. Suddenly, we have to deal with funerals and memorial services, funeral homes and cemeteries, death certificates and insurance policies, family and friends, emotions and feelings. And none of it was on your calendar.

Death is never on my calendar. Neither my own nor anyone else’s. It’s funny. You know it’s coming. But you don’t know when. So for the most part, you never expect it to happen. You live as if you and everyone else were immortal. And then just like that, you are proved wrong. Death happens.

When a member dies, they immediately get a spot on my calendar for their funeral or memorial. Family gets slots on my schedule for visits. All kinds of folks flex their schdules or ask for time off to gather for a service.

Because death just isn’t convenient.

No more ________.

Every Thursday morning between ten and twenty men from our church gather for breakfast and bible study at a local restaurant. This group has been meeting for close to thirty years, longer than I’ve been the pastor at our church. I’m not going to mention the name of the restaurant, unless I feel kind of snarky a little later in this post.

Within the past year, the franchise has eliminated certain items from the menu. The first item to go: raisins. Raisins were no longer available for the guys who ordered oatmeal for breakfast. Dried cranberries, yes. Raisins? Nope. Next, no more Tabasco. OK, I realize this is a niche market. And they did offer a cheap imitation hot sauce. But if you want the good stuff, too bad. One day, we were told, “No more English muffins.” You could choose from white, wheat, sour dough, or rye bread. Or a couple of pancakes. Biscuits? Yes. All of a sudden though, one day English muffins reappeared in our choice of breads. Nice.

So I’ve been wondering, “Who makes these decisions?” I doubt that the franchise owner is fretting about dried fruit or bread. But at the corporate level, in some office somewhere, someone is pondering, “What can we do to increase our profits? Where can we cut the fat?”

Last week, one group member lamented a local Subway’s decision to eliminate Swiss cheese from the menu. Really? Cheese with holes is a staple of deli sandwiches. What happened? Tariffs on imported Swiss? Shortages and price spikes? Who knows.

I’m just curious. Who makes these decisions? And why? I’m no dummy. I know it’s the bottom line. Follow the money. Some bean counter somewhere decided that millions could be made with a simple adjustment to the menu. Whatever. We can always bring our own Tabasco. Or get our subs from a different fast food restaurant. Or boycott until they meet our demands.

So far we can still bring our bibles. That’s the important thing.

How many bites and how many sips?

At the end of last week’s confirmation class, I asked, “Anyone have any questions?” We had just begun our unit on the Ten Commandments and worked our way through the first commandment. We talked a lot about idols and what it means to fear, love and trust God above all things. I expected the question to be related to our discussion. Foolish me.

The last minute question posed to me was, “In Holy Communion, how many bites of bread and how many sips of wine would you need before you consumed an entire Jesus?” To tell you the truth, I’ve never been asked that before. The young man who asked had a very creative mind and I beleve his question was sincere.

I told him, “If by faith you receive all the benefits of forgiveness, life and salvation whenever you eat and drink in Holy Communion, then you get everything Jesus did for us. You get all of him every time, not just a little bit.” He paused a moment, then said, “Oh. OK. Thanks.”

That’s why I like to teach the middle school students. You get those kinds of questions!

I’ll do better next time.

Last Monday morning, as I was reading the bible and journaling, I jotted down a few reflections about Sunday morning. I preach twice each Sunday morning and one sermon always goes a little better than the other. Sometimes it’s the first one, sometimes the second. Anyway, I noted that I left out an illustration the second time around, one that really helped me connect with that morning’s text. Of course, no one knew this but me. I’m the only person who heard the sermon twice that morning.

So I started pondering what I could do to do better next time. Should I have reviewed the sermon between Sunday School and the second worship service? Should I have practiced more the week before?

And then I paused and mused to myself, “After all these years, I am still trying to do better next time.” If I include some of my seminary field work and my vicarage, I’ve been preaching for over thirty-five years. One might assume I’ve got it down by now. But weekly a little voice in my mind suggests, “You can do better than that!”

I like to read articles, books and blogs, and watch videos about speaking effectively. I love to watch TED talks as much to learn as speaking as about the topic. My radar is always on when it comes to techniques that get people’s attention, how connect with listeners, the power of storytelling, and what people remember. I rarely learn anything new, for there is still nothing new under the sun. But it never hurts to reinforce what I’ve learned and remember what’s effective.

At the end of my journal entry, I wrote, “Don’t worry. If you forgot to mention something, it probably wan’t that important anyway. I’ll do better next time.” And I will.

Why was I so tired?

Photo by Lechon Kirb on Unsplash

I saved the lion’s share of my visiting for Wednesday and Thursday this week. My rounds included a hospital, two nursing homes and one family’s residence. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, but at the end of the day, I have to admit I was weary. As I reflect on the day, I can’t help but wonder why. I got plenty of sleep the night before (about 8 hours) and ate well. I exercise and am fairly fit. But I didn’t do anything physically demanding. Why was I so tired?

When I left my study at church, a crew of seven was tearing out and installing huge new AC units for our sanctuary. When I stopped home for lunch, a crew was reroofing my neighbor’s house across the street. My wife was working a twelve-hour shift in the hospital ER. My daughters chased their toddlers around all day. They all had plenty of reason to be tired at the end of a shift. Me? Not so much.

Yet I still felt a different kind of fatigue, one that still surprises me. It’s a spiritual weariness, one that follows a day of preaching, teaching or in some way caring for people. It isn’t something that’s easy to put your finger on, but it’s real. A tired spirit is just as real as a worn-out body or brain.

My first visits took me to the hospital. I didn’t know how these folks were doing, so my half-hour included prayer for them and thoughts about them. by the grace of God, both were doing really well. In fact, the first one was doing better than he had for a long, long time. His relaxed smile and clear speach filled the room with hope. Though completely out of context, his wife shared the story of how they met some sixty years ago. My visit was about twenty minutes and my prayer was filled with gratitude.

One floor away, another was recovering from successful surgery, and was looking forward to going home in the next day or so. He and his wife also spoke of their sixty years together and an upcoming cruise they had to put off for a few months. This conversation also lasted about twenty minutes, concluding with a thank-filled prayer.

From here, it was on to a nursing home. I stopped at the front desk to get the room, but when I walked into a large common area, I spotted them as she finished up her lunch and he sat there chatting with her. In the course of the conversation, I learned that he had been working on long term care arrangement for his wife, who really wanted to go home. I could see the pain on his face as he hinted at what was to come. When she finished eating, we went to her room and I read scripture, gave them communion, and also prayed, thanking God for the good care she was receiving there.

My final visit yesterday was at a another nursing home, but she wasn’t in her room. I couldn’t find her in any of the common rooms, so I just left a flower arrangement from church in her room. I would have to try another time on another day.

I had one visit today at a member’s home. He slept through most of it while she and I caught up on all kinds of events in their lives and mine. She spoke of many challenges and a few glimmers of hope. He woke towards the end of my visit so I could also give them communion.

So what did I actually do? I sat and listened. I read a few verses and prayed a few prayers. No big deal. Or is it. Caring for souls is no small task. In my role as pastor I get invited into the lives of families who are dealing with significant changes and challenges. When they share some of their burdens with me, I help them shoulder some of the load. They will not have to carry them alone. I freely share with them the hope I have received from God, too. I may not have all the answers, but I give them what I have.

I guess over the years I’ve learned what helps me rest and recover from such days. I find that gardening or working in the yard, cooking a meal or playing with the grandkids recharges me. These simple tasks and precious lives reconnect me with the one who takes all my burdens and gives me all that he has.

“I’m rockin'”

I have always looked with envy on those sitting in the rocking chairs at Jacksonville International Airport (JAX) relaxing and chilling. While I am checking gate and departure times, wondering how fast the security line is moving and even thinking ahead to my next connection, many folks are enjoying the live music being played in the atrium and petting the relaxation dogs who wander by.

Just a few days ago, though, I was picking my wife up at the airport, and I had plenty of time. So I got to sit and watch people coming and going, listen to the music and simply “rock” while others looked on with envy.

Oh, I’ve been to plenty of airports with rocking chairs. They are usually all occupied. But not tonight. Tonight, I had plenty of time, there were plenty of chairs open, and plenty of people to watch.

When I got the text, “Just landed,” I replied, “I’m rockin'”

A Costco experience

My granddaughter Cameron and did the Costco experience yesterday. I call it an “experience” because we both were captivated by the sights and sounds of this warehouse store.

How could you not be? Within seconds of walking in, row after row of enormous TVs with amazing pictures caught our eye. Then we walked by a cooler full of NY strip steaks for $7.99 per pound. It was hard to ignore the giant fans slowly turning on the ceiling. Until we rounded the corner and saw the Christmas trees! We were both mesmerized by the 10 foot lighted trees that alternated from white to colored lights. Until we saw the baby Jesus in the middle of a giant nativity smack dab in the center of Costco.

I lost count of how many times I said, “Whoa!” as we rounded a corner and saw yet another bigger than life offering:

  • Like a bin containing hundreds of pumpkins, all bigger than my granddaughter.
  • Containers of cheese balls larger than my granddaughter.
  • A display of roses in every color of the rainbow.
  • A package of refills for an Oral-B electric toothbrush that would last me the rest of my life.
  • Trays of pomegranets, which reminded me of my trip to Israel, where mountains of pomegranets were everywhere. There were much more expensive, though, far away from their home.
  • Bags and bags and bags of chips made from all kinds of root veggies, everything but potatoes. We got a couple for Gigi! But we passed on the tub of Beetroot powder, which may be good for you, but will never find a place in our shopping cart!
  • And people. So many people. We got there at 10 am when the store opened. Fifteen minutes later, the store was packed. At least half a dozen people came up to Cameron and commented on how cute she was. And she ate it up. She is a people- and a Costco- person!