Posted in Moments of grace

A month of phone calls

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

I’ve spent more time in the phone in the past month than I have in years.

Pastoral ministry to a “sheltering-in-place” congregation has been an interesting experience. Generally, over the course of a month, I would see and talk with most of the members of the congregation in worship, bible classes, meetings, nursing visits and visits to those sick or recovering at home or in the hospital. But when everyone, including myself, stays home for six weeks, that whole dynamic of church life is gone.

So I blocked out a few hours of time each day and called just about everyone who affiliates with our congregation, about two hundred families, over the past month. Here are some things I learned in the process.

  • Everyone was doing well! Yes, some had been sick or been recovering from a surgery, but no one had contracted the CoVid-19 virus. Our congregation has been blessed and spared so far.
  • Folks are notorious for not reporting new phone numbers, email addresses and even changes of address. I had to do a little detective work to find some folks, but now our records are up to date.
  • Many were thankful for the chance to chat with someone. The conversation always lasted longer than I expected. And more often than not, all I had to do was listen. For many, the church fills an important social as well as spiritual role in their lives, and they were thankful for a time to connect.
  • More than a few finally dipped a toe into 21st century technology. Some watched their first YouTube video ever when we uploaded holy week worship services. Others dusted off long neglected Facebook accounts to watch livestreams. A few learned how to contribute to the church online. A number finally began to read the weekly email I’ve been sending out for years. A good number learned how to be a part of a bible class via video conferencing.
  • I learned that for the most part, I have a positive relationship with the church family. Most wanted to know how I was holding up. They were glad to hear that I and my family are doing just fine. The majority also expressed their gratitude that I had delayed my retirement for another year.
  • With each call, I asked what they needed and what they needed help with. This first time through, no one had any immediate needs. Most wanted to help someone else. We’ve been very, very blessed.

So now I’m going through the list a second time. It’s been a month, and we’ve got new joys and sorrows, blessings and needs to share!

Posted in Moments of grace

Eleven types of virtual worshipers

Photo by Jud Mackrill on Unsplash

It is indeed a brave new world. While I and most of my congregation shelter at home to avoid a contagious virus, Sunday morning worship has become a virtual occasion. I set up my iPhone on a tripod in the center aisle of the sanctuary, start a live broadcast on Facebook and proceed to lead worship and preach a sermon all by myself. (Well, actually, the organist has been there with me, too.) It’s a marvelous paradox. I am preaching to nobody and the entire world all at the same time.

Normally, on a Sunday morning, I would be preaching to a group of seventy to sometimes over 150 people. I would make eye contact, pause to get reaction, sow stories and reap responses from facial expressions, nods, smiles and laughter. Now, with none of that in the room, I have to imagine all of that in my mind. In some ways its not unlike my college radio days, when I spoke to a microphone in a small electronics-filled booth.

Here’s my light-hearted but certainly incomplete list of those I imagine using my broadcast or upload for Sunday worship until the quarantine lifts and we are back together again.

The Cut-to-the-Chase worshiper fast-forwards to the sermon for instruction and inspiration. Without the surrounding bread of liturgy and prayers, they consume the meat of the morning. These might very well be those who always arrive late and often leave early on a normal Sunday morning.

The All-In worshiper gets up, showers, gets dressed, eats breakfast and tunes in exactly when the broadcast begins. This person fully participates with bible, hymnal and worship folder in hand, speaking and singing along, visibly and verbally responding to the message.

The Must-Not-Smile worshiper is a faithful Sunday morning attender, but simply sits and listens. They do not speak, sing, smile or respond in any way at all. Of course they’re blessed by the experience, but they do so very passively.

The Pause-and-Play worshiper is thankful for a virtual Sunday morning experience. They can pause the service for a potty-break, a drink, a snack, or a coffee-refill (and then another potty-break) and never miss a note of music or word of the sermon. When live worship gatherings resume, you’ll seem them leave and return to the sanctuary several times each morning.

The Responder is also grateful for an at-home time of worship. They talk back to the screen, ask questions and might even openly disagree with the preacher. I can’t hear them but I know they are there.

The Commenter relishes the opportunity to type in their comments during the service. I appreciate the greetings from far away places, the LOLs in place of laughter, and updates on sound and lighting. Unfortunately, once I hit the start button and the service begins, I can neither see nor respond to them until I scroll through them later.

The Anonymous worshiper is of course someone I’ve never met. My service is available to the public, so someone I don’t know may tune and watch some or all of the service.

I believe the Snack worshiper is common. How convenient to be able to sit down with a glass of wine and some cheese and crackers to worship! Put the service up on your big TV and the bowl of popcorn calls from the kitchen. And you don’t have to ever-so-quietly unwrap your piece of candy!

The Child-in-My-Lap worshiper is common, too. Little ones are drawn to screens like bees to flowers, so they love to sit and watch with their parents. For a moment. But, they can get up and down unlimited times and not disturb anyone.

The Multi-tasking worshiper will have several windows open on their computer plus a phone nearby, too. Just in case a message, email or advertisement pops up. If you have to work from home now, you can listen and get some stuff done all at the same time.

The Non-Sunday morning worshipers are in paradise. You can tune in any time you want to during the week.

I’m pretty sure all these worshipers exist because I have consumed spiritual content in all of these ways. So whatever your style is, it’s OK. I’m talking to you!

Posted in Devotions

“Avenging the blood of his servants”

2020 “By His Blood” Lent devotion #46

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out,“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”  (Revelation 19:1-2) 

I’ll bet you’ve seen some of those big soccer games where the stands are full of thousands of fans, waving giant flags and singing songs to encourage their team. When the final horn blows and the game is over, their victory shouts are even louder! 

Take that image and picture the great multitude in heaven, cheering for the Lord’s victory over “the great prostitute,” finally making her pay the price for all the faithful who lost their lives to the powers of sin, death and Satan. But like any victory, this one was hard fought. It took the ultimate sacrifice by Christ to win that salvation. He was the servant of all, whose holy, precious blood and innocent suffering and death led to his glorious and powerful resurrection, the ultimate victory of all time. 

When we sing our songs of praise together in worship, we can and ought to imagine that multitude singing right along with us! While the earth might indeed be corrupt and believer’s lives are on the line, he always has the last word. “Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,” and nothing is ever going to separate us from his love! 

We win! Hallelujah! Thank you, Lord, for the best victory of all! Amen. 

Our Lenten journey comes to an end with this devotion. Thanks for traveling along with me. The many, many references to blood have given me a change to think deeply about our Lord’s amazing love for us, his plan of salvation for us, and the eternal life we have in him! I hope you’ve been blessed by such thoughts as well. 

Posted in Devotions, Lent

“Drunk with the blood of the saints”

2020 “By His Blood” Lent devotion #45

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. (Revelation 17:6)

Symbolic of the evil which is very real in our world, the “woman” of Revelation has taken the lives of many believers. Martyrdom has always been a possibility for those who follow Jesus, who clearly said, “If anyone wants to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” The way of the cross is suffering, self-sacrifice and yes, death itself. Trusting him means trusting him with our lives, not trying to hold onto them ourselves. 

While most who read this live in a nation where there is freedom to worship, many Christians in other places do not enjoy that privilege. To profess Christ, to be baptized, to assemble for worship or even have Christian friends is a death wish. Persecution is real, harsh and unrelenting. Following Christ is a treacherous path for them. 

And yet, they follow Christ. They don’t play it safe. They risk it all to call him Lord. They have truly taken to heart Jesus words not to fear those who can only hurt your physical body but can’t touch your soul. Instead they fear, love and trust the only who cares deeply about their bodies and souls. Their own lives are not nearly as valuable as the life they have found in Christ.

Like a treasure they’ve discovered in a field or a one-in-a-million precious pearl, they would never dream of giving up their precious Lord. 

You can’t hold on to both your own life and Christ. It’s one or the other. Since he’s the one who holds the power of life and death, I would rather be in his hands than my own. 

But that’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself. 

Lord, thanks for the life I have in you no matter what. Amen. 

Posted in Devotions, Lent

“Seas, rivers and springs of blood”

2020 “By His Blood” Lent devotion #44

Photo by schuetz-mediendesign on Pixabay.com

The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea. The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. (Revelation 16:3-4)

The idea of all the water being turned into blood is reminiscent of the first plague God sent on Egypt to persuade Pharaoh to let the nation of Israel go free. Pharaoh refused. It would take nine more plagues before he would finally relent and release them. One after another, the Egyptian gods of sun, amphibians, darkness, livestock and rivers would submit to the authority of the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

The hardest to convert? People. Pharaoh was not about to roll over for a foreign people’s god. In fact, God’s own people of Israel weren’t one hundred percent sure he was the real deal. God sent many of these plagues for the specific reason of showing Israel who he was. Yet even after seeing the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, manna on the ground and water from a rock, they still wondered if their God was actually capable of caring for them! 

What does it take to move us to submit to God’s authority? How many natural disasters must occur before we turn to him for help? How much must we suffer before we finally repent and turn to him for mercy? 
What do you think is going on when pollution kills sea life? What do you think is happening when toxins show up in our ground water? How many die around the world in places where there is no source of clean water? 
Is somebody trying to tell us something? 

Our God is always trying to tell us something. His word is living and active, proclaiming an eternal gospel. Though everything in this world will pass away, his word will endure forever. 

It’s time to listen!

Lord, I’m listening. Speak to me through your powerful word, and lead me in paths of righteousness. Amen. 

Posted in Devotions, Lent

“Blood flowing from the winepress”

2020 “By His Blood” Lent devotion #43

Photo by Amos Bar-Zeev on Unsplash

The angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia. (Revelation 14:19,20)

The culmination of time and the ultimate judgment of God is compared to the harvest in this passage from Revelation. The harvest was a familiar and anticipated event in biblical times. Sickles are swung, grapes are gathered, and the juice was squeezed out of them to be made into wine. 

The wrath of God can be hard to describe. We may be tempted to ask, “Why is God so angry? Is my sin really that bad?” As those who are sinful by nature, we struggle to comprehend holiness, especially the holiness of God. These verses are an attempt to help us see what’s really going on between us and God. We’re nothing more than grapes destined for the winepress. We are nothing more than poor, miserable sinners destined to suffer the wrath of God. It’s not just what we’ve done. It’s who we are. 

When it is time for harvest, that is, the day of judgment, many will be condemned, forever cast from God’s presence, like a deep and wide river of blood flowing away from the city of God. 

Will that be our fate? By the grace of God, no. Christ’s blood flowed on the cross for us. He suffered God’s wrath in our place, on a cross-shaped winepress. So we are forgiven, we will not perish and we will have eternal life with him in that heavenly city of God. 

We ought never to forget the reality of God’s holiness and our depravity. It makes the saving work of Jesus all that much more amazing. 

Thank you, Lord, for the blood of Christ that flowed from the cross. Amen. 

Posted in Devotions, Lent

“Conquering by the blood”

2020 “By His Blood” Lent devotion #42

And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Revelation 12:11) 

Who has been conquered? The dragon. AKA the serpent. AKA the devil. AKA Satan, the accuser and adversary himself! Praise God! He’s been wreaking havoc ever since he got the chance to speak in the garden, play with Job’s faith, tempt Christ and prowl around like a lion. It’s about time!

The secret to victory has always been and will always be the same: “the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.” Our Lord’s death and resurrection has taken away the sting of death, which is sin (1 Cor. 15:16). Our sin has been paid for, we are forgiven, and we are free from the schemes of the devil. The testimony of that truth, from the law to the prophets to the wisdom literature gives us the victory. The testimony of the eyewitnesses, the gospel writers, the men who spoke from God moved by his Spirit provide the power to save us!

This is such a powerful yet basic Christian truth. Why, then, is it so easy to forget? Why is it so easy to drift into thinking that we’ve lost, that the powers of evil have overcome, that we don’t stand a chance?
Maybe, just maybe, you’ve haven’t been consuming enough of God’s Word. Maybe you have stuffed yourself with news feeds, social media, fake news and rumor. Maybe you just aren’t getting your minimum daily requirement of the scriptures. 

Here’s my prescription. First, read your bible. Every day. Yes, every day. First thing. Before you check your email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or newspaper. Hear from God first, and let him set the tone for every other bit of information you take in. 

Second, read your bible. Read the fun parts (like Ehud stabbing the fat king in Judges). Read the boring parts (like the sacrifices in Leviticus). Read the racy parts (like the Song of Solomon). Read the challenging parts (like sell everything you have and give to the poor). Read the scary parts (like the beasts of Revelation). Read the sad parts (like the passion of our Lord in the gospel). Read the challenging parts (like the admonition to tithe in Malachi). Read the really challenging parts (like don’t get divorced). Read the crazy parts (like talking donkeys). 

Third, read your bible. Every inch of it will point you to the perfect, blameless Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. By his blood, shed on the cross, you will conquer. You’ll come out on top. You’ll be victorious. 

And you know what? You will have a testimony, a story to tell!

Thank you, Lord, for the win! Amen. 

Posted in Devotions, Lent

“A third of the sea”

2020 “By His Blood” Lent devotion #41

Photo by Aneta Foubíková on Unsplash

The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood. A third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed. (Revelation 8:9)

Here’s a shocking vision of bloody currents in the ocean from dead sea creatures and sailors. What could this be? Is this an image of war and sunken naval vessels? Or volcanic eruptions that spew molten rock into the ocean, spawning tsunamis that wipe out harbors and coastal communities? No matter what you envision, it is certainly unsettling.

It is precisely what Jesus said would happen. He spoke of wars and rumors of wars. He described earthquakes that would rock our world. As horrible as it might sound, though, it’s just business as usual. It’s not the end. Not yet, anyway.

It is however, a call for faithfulness, endurance and the continued proclamation of the gospel. That means we trust God, we remember we’re in this for the long haul, and we have a message of hope we do not want to keep to ourselves. We have the best news of all of a Savior who has overcome sin, death and the power of the devil by his suffering and death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. Nothing in this world or from anywhere else can separate us from his love.

Crazy headlines of a world coming apart at the seams are supposed to remind you of why Jesus came. They are like big, flashing neon signs telling you to “Repent!” Turn back to God and find your hope and security and peace in him!

Lord, I’m paying attention. Thank you for coming here and being here for me. Amen.

Posted in Devotions, Lent

“Hail, fire and blood”

2020 “By His Blood” Lent devotion #40

Photo by Hans on Pixabay

The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and these were thrown upon the earth. And a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up. (Revelation 8:7)

Natural disasters, taking their toll on the earth, are always portents of the end, for this world as we know it will not last forever. Violent hail storms move across the heartland destroying crops. Fires burn out of control, wiping out millions of acres of forested areas. When these things happen, there are always lives that are lost, too. Blood is always mixed in. 

Just as we do, the created world around us waits and yearns to be set free from the calamity that sin has caused. It will happen. We just don’t know when. We don’t know when Christ will return. No one does. 

But these kinds of events are signs that there is an end and that he will come and  meant to move us to repentance. They are meant to wake us up and focus our attention on Jesus who is the only one who can rescue us from a world falling apart at the seams. 

Do you need a wake-up call? Probably. Most likely you take a lot for granted. Jesus loves you too much to let you do that. He gives us  birds and flowers to remind us we don’t have to worry about what we’ll eat or wear. He gives us storms and fires to remind us we need a Savior. And he gives us his word to remind us that he is the Savior, Christ the Lord. 

Thanks for the wake-up call, Lord. I needed that. Amen.