Posted in Stories

A few fraternity memories

A recent Zoom meeting with a bunch of college fraternity brothers brought back a flood of memories from four decades ago. I had to write these down before I forget them.

The first involved Joe, a somewhat whiny and annoying brother, who lived in a back room on the second floor of the house. I am not sure what inspired me, but one day I suggested to my friend Gary that we nail Joe’s bedroom door shut, and then rappel out the window. This is not as far-fetched as one might think. Gary was a rock climber, had the necessary rope and harness, and as house manager, I had a hammer and nails.

One day, while Joe was in class or out somewhere else, Gary secured a rope on a radiator and hung it out a third floor window. Gary then used some big old nails to permanently attach the door to the frame from the inside. He rappelled out the window, ran back up to coil up the rope and the project was complete.

I wasn’t there when Joe discovered that he couldn’t open his bedroom door. I so wish I was. All I got to see was the smashed in door when he apparently threw all of his weight against it, breaking the door and frame to get in. It was well worth the cost and effort to replace that door!

A second memory was a lot bloodier, much less entertaining and very vivid. It happened in the kitchen where Bob and I often washed and dried dishes after supper. Don’t ask me why, but one night we decided that it would be fun to stab empty milk jugs with carving knives, like swashbucklers. It’s really not that easy to do. The knife isn’t sharp enough and the jug isn’t heavy enough to actually slice through. However, on one attempt, the knife caught the edge of the counter, Bob’s hand slid up the handle, and sliced through a few of his fingers. I don’t think it hurt that much, but there was a good amount of blood. That blood sport not only required a trip to the emergency room, but also some follow up surgeries so Bob did regain full use of his finger. No, we never tried that again.

A few other miscellaneous memories that sometimes flash through my mind:

  • Tossing an old refrigerator and sofa off the back porch
  • Parties that featured live bands, before the days of DJs.
  • “Blinkey” and trashcans of water dumped off the roof onto the pledges
  • Gary teaching me how to play guitar
  • Road trips to see Rocky Horror Picture Show with bags full of toast, rice, water, toilet paper, and playing cards – and absolutely trashing the theater
  • Eating BLTs and rare roast beef in front of some of the more kosher Jewish brothers – and of course, pizza during Passover
  • Coming and going via the fire escape through a third floor window outside my room
  • Drinking some of the worst beer I ever had in my life from a keg far past its prime

I have so many vivid memories of my fraternity brothers from over forty years ago. The bond of the sphinx, as we called it, is strong indeed.

Posted in Stories

Behind the zipper

The symptoms were obvious and ominous. High temperature, coughing, a feeling of weakness. After a week of this, on-again, off-again, he decided he needed to go to the emergency room. My wife was working, so I grabbed a mask, hopped in the truck and headed down to pick him up.

He was ready to go when I got to the house. But he could barely stand up and walk. It’s was a good thing that we were going that night. Had we waited a day, things might have been much worse. Somehow, as I was gathering up hearing aids and a list of medications, he made it out and into the passenger side of my truck. Without his hearing aids, our conversation was limited. I called my wife, working in the ER that night, and told her we were on the way.

After I pulled up to the ER entrance, I walked around to the passenger side to help him out. He could barely stand, much less walk the twenty or so yards to the door. A tech by the entrance heard me say, “I’ll see if I can get a wheelchair” and brought one out. With some difficulty, we transferred him to the chair and got him inside. He had a few questions to answer, I got a visitor tag, and the guard handed me an N95 mask to wear, “If you’re going where I think you are going.”

They took him back right away while I parked the truck. I had to wait a bit before my wife came out and said, “Come on back.” We turned left and went down the hall to a part of the ER that was draped in plastic with zippered entrances, an isolation unit for suspected Covid-19 patients. My wife looked at me and said, “If you go back there, we probably won’t be able to go on our trip.” I said, “I know.” But he wouldn’t be able to hear and I couldn’t just let him go back there alone.

So that’s when I went… behind the zipper.

It wasn’t all that exciting. In fact, it was eerily quiet. Because fresh gowns, masks, face shields and gloves were required of the doctors, nurses and techs every time they came in the room, their appearances were few and far between. I sat there in shorts, t-shirt and an N95 mask, wondering when I would get sick. Had we gone one day later, I would not have been allowed back there. Policies and procedures are subject to change, like the wind.

I stayed for about six hours, as we waited for tests, test results and the decision to admit him. He didn’t want to watch TV, and was finally able to snooze a bit, so I spent my time reading on my phone and keeping family up-to-date. I called his out-of-state son so they could talk. Finally they were ready to take him to another room, and it was time for me to head home. No one was allowed back in that part of the hospital.

As I write this, that happened a full eight weeks ago, and thankfully neither my wife nor I had any symptoms of illness. We did spend a couple of weeks staying further apart from family, just in case. It turns out he only had to stay in the hospital a few nights, and was discharged home. His wife had to do the ER thing later in the week, but she wasn’t admitted.

We were blessed. I am still careful. People are still getting sick. So far I’ve stayed healthy. I don’t take that for granted. I just give thanks each day.

Posted in Stories

Everyone wants my attention!

The intersections in my community are clogged with campaign signs of every size and color, vying for my vote this fall.

Emails fill my inbox that used to be informative newsletters, but are now pleas for subscriptions to courses that will improve every aspect of my life. Once they have your contact info, you will hear from them for the rest of your life, and I believe, from beyond the grave!

I get text messages from anonymous sources who seek my vote in this fall’s elections. Interestingly, the emails are often addressed to my wife’s name or my son’s name. He doesn’t even live in this state anymore.

About half of my social media feeds are sales pitches for T-shirts, subscription boxes, testosterone supplements, fitness programs, how-to-preach-a-better-sermon courses, IQ tests, and of course, your candidate for office.

Phone calls at church offer me endless resources for youth curriculum, audio-visual technology, text-the-whole-congregation and web site design services.

Pretty much all of my mail consists of large campaign postcards or offers for home and auto warranties. Oh, and of course, lot and lots of bonus mile credit card offers.

Every realtor in a ten-mile radius lets me know of houses they’ve sold. Every independent insurance agent has already worked the numbers and covets my business.

Auto dealers in a seventy-five mile radius bend over backwards in emails offering to help me find the vehicle I am looking for.

People knock at my door to give me quotes for window replacements, security systems, trimming my palm trees and cleaning my roof.

And every time – and I kid you not – every time I go to Home Depot, a gentleman approaches me and askls me if I drink bottled water. Duh. Doesn’t everyone? He is there to harvest leads for water tries water purification systems. I got to Home Depot about once a week. Fifty-two times a year. Every week the very same person approaches me. My radar is on. I’ve learned to quickly walk walk away from the obvious question. From adjacent aisles I overhear female and male voice lament, “You talked to me last week.” Or in a nastier tone of voice, “You talk to me every week!” It. Never. Stops.

Everyone is trying to get my attention, my vote, and of course, my money. I know, none of this would happen if someone somewhere didn’t have some modicum of success or earn some cash. It’s a numbers game.

I have never been so popular in my life! Everyone wants to talk to me, help me, encourage me, improve me and enhance me. I’m at my wits end. I am not seeking any of these things. But everything that I have ever even dreamed about is now relentlessly pushed on me. I’m so glad you all want the best for me.

Posted in Devotions

I don’t want to be “omni-” anything!

What happens when we attain to omniscience (knowing everything), omnipresence (being everywhere) and omnipotence (able to do anything)? In other words, what happens to us when we approach these qualities that only God possesses?

Let’s start with omniscience. OK, so I don’t know everything. But I know an awful lot about what everyone is doing, what they are thinking, where they are going and their relationships. It’s all right there on social media. I have easy access to everything going on around the world. It’s right there in my constantly updated news feeds. I know all about the incredible wealth of some and the miserable poverty of others.

It’s overwhelming. All that information frightens me, worries me and sometimes disgusts me. It’s too much. I don’t know how to process it all. In those rare spans of time when I don’t have access to news and everyone’s opinions, my mind and my soul begin to relax. I wasn’t designed for that overload. Maybe we should leave omniscience to God.

How about omnipresence? Recent virus quarantining has prompted lots of virtual experiences, digitally taking us places that were beyond our reach before. We can “visit” museums and parks, oceans and outer space, concert halls and theater stages, homes for sale, used car lots and the kitchens of famous chefs. I can go to church just about anywhere I want to. With a VR headset, I can take virtual bike rides across the country and ride the world’s tallest roller coasters. I can go anywhere!

But it’s not real. Well, it’s real, but I’m not really there. I’m here, in one place at a certain time. It’s just an illusion, and it can distract me from being where I am and who I’m with. Omnipresence is a bit much for me. It’s better suited for the divine.

Now I know I’m not omnipotent. There are definitely limits to my ability to do things. But the plethora of do-it-yourself videos often has me thinking, “I could do that.” Whether it’s preparing food, making repairs, decorating a room, writing a book or whatever, it always looks so easy. It always looks like it’s within my ability. At least that’s what they say. “You can do it!”

The thing is, I don’t necessarily need to do all that. I really don’t need more to do. In fact, it’s often better to let someone else do many of these things. My best efforts never seem to turn out as good as that in the video.

Didn’t the original temptation go something like this: “You’ll be like God”? If I’ve learned anything, it’s better to just be me and let Him be God.

Posted in Ministry

The good and the not-so-good of digital church

In a faced-covered, quarantined, CoVid-19 world, many churches like mine adapted to streamed online worship services. In some respects, it worked well. In other ways we struggled. Either we’re still just not used to virtual worship or we aren’t cut out for a digital existence. Will this define us from now on, or is this just a season in the life of the church?

As I ponder my own experiences, I see both blessings and failings in the digital church. Here are my observations, as both preacher and worshiper.

We reach more than ever!

As soon as we began to stream our services via Facebook and YouTube, we not only brought worship into the homes of our members, but reached people in faraway places. Our sphere of influence became the globe as family, friends and complete strangers watched and listed to the music and the message. One memorial service we streamed had viewers in New York, Hawaii, Jamaica, England, and South Africa. Those who couldn’t travel could be with us.

I have had the chance to watch and worship with my son, a pastor in Dallas, TX. I don’t often get to hear him preach. Now, I never miss his sermons and am always come away blessed.

The challenge of technology

However, we do not hold corporate worship in a recording studio or on a sound stage. It is one thing to fill a room with sound. It is another to capture it for broadcast. The first few weeks were recorded on my tripod-mounted iPhone X in an empty sanctuary. The cavernous echoes of that empty room made my voice hard to understand. After a month or so, we stepped up to my Macbook Air propped up on a cardboard box in the fifth row of the church. I could patch my microphone into that device for better audio. But since we worship in a room with a lot of windows and natural light, the video was a challenge. When it became apparent that we might be doing this for a long time, we installed a real camera. However with each improvement, the learning curve becomes steeper.

The learning curve was steep for much of our congregation, too. I discovered just how many had never been exposed to Facebook or YouTube, and really didn’t know how to use their phones or computers. So they were not only blessed by being able to watch our worship services, but they took a giant leap into the communications of the twenty-first century.

Is anyone really watching?

I’ve preached to large audiences and small crowds, but never to just a camera. I’ve long believed that a sermon really isn’t a sermon until it is both preached and heard. In front of my phone, I was preaching, but was anyone listening? I had no idea. Usually I can watch the reaction on the faces of the congregation. But in those moments I could only picture their smiles, nods or grimaces in my mind.

Streaming services report analytics for your videos, including the average time people actually spend watching. The average time is always far shorter than the actual length of a sermon. Sure, you can tune out a speaker in front of you, but it’s even easier to click away from a digital sermon.

My own digital worship watching experience was a challenge. As I sat watching in front of my computer or TV, I was at home, not at church. I was surrounded by distractions I could escape from at church. There I can step away from the world for a moment of peace and hope. But at the dining room table, I was still in that demanding and uncertain world. That peace and hope seemed far away.

What about the people?

It’s great to be able to worship in your pajamas with a cup of coffee and plate of breakfast in front of you. But what about the people? What about the people whose voices can join to sing liturgy and hymns? Chances are you’re just listening, unwilling to perform solo. What about the conversations you have before and after (and during!) worship? You can’t catch up with folks you haven’t seen all week, share jokes, complain about the weather and comment on the news. That interaction is an important part of Sunday morning, too. Even though our interactions are elbows rather than hugs, six feet apart and covered with masks, we are with people. We are with people who share our beliefs, share our joys and sorrows, share their stories and listen to ours. I don’t think we ever imagined how much we would miss that.

When someone who’s been in the hospital is back in church, we witnesses to the gift and miracle of God’s healing. When the small voices of children break the silence and also join us in prayer, we find ourselves in the presence of the greatest members of the kingdom of God (Jesus’ words, not mine). When we gather together at the altar for the sacrament, we find ourselves in the presence of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, praising God and singing, “Hosanna!”

This is our world

For better or worse, digital church is here to stay. This our world. I bank and pay my bills online, do much of my shopping online, and get just about all of my news online. Many see their doctor, go to school, and order restaurant meals via a screen. The church is a part of that world. But the church also affords people the chance to be together, something we really don’t want to live without.

Posted in Moments of grace

Fifty seconds of prayer

As I finished up my first visit today, I started up the truck to get the AC going and got my phone out of the center console to quickly check my messages and emails. One immediately got my attention. Someone had called the church just after I left and wanted a Lutheran pastor to pray over the body of his mother-in-law who had suddenly died just a day before. I had no details, but the request was somewhat urgent as an autopsy was scheduled and family wasn’t around. I got in touch with the caller and then the funeral home. It would be just me, to say a final prayer of committal, something very important to the daughters.

Just like that, I was done. The funeral director and I thanked each other and I headed out to my next appointment. Before I drove from the parking lot, I sent the fifty-second recording of my prayer to the son-in-law, so he could pass that along to the family.

Later, I typed her name into the search bar of Facebook and found her page. She was my age, a local business owner. Family and friends had already begun to post condolences and memories on her timeline. I reached out to the family, offering my help and encouragement.

Sometimes God punctuates our lives with moments that remind us of the power of His mercy in life and in death. Even if I never hear the rest of this story, I am glad I could be a part of it.

Update: That wasn’t the end of the story. I had a chance to sit down and talk with her husband for a while and then meet all her children the next day to share some memories and say a prayer.

Posted in Devotions, Moments of grace

Each day is a gift

So if I am mortal, my life is finite and the time of my death has been predetermined, does it really matter how I live? While trying to figure out why he was suffering, Job said to God, “A person’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed” (Job 14:5). Is my life really that determined, so that the things I do or don’t do have little to do with my waking up each day?

If I truly believed that, I wouldn’t worry so much about eating healthy or exercising. I can’t add any years to my life, right? I wouldn’t call 911 when I felt chest pain. It’s either my time or it isn’t. I certainly wouldn’t worry about seat belts, speed limits and stop signs, either. Why own a gun? If a shooter’s bullet has my name on it, it’s a done deal. I would be just like Simeon, who had the promise from God that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Christ (Luke 2:25,26). Until that moment, Simeon was essentially immortal!

And yet, most of us don’t live that way, do we? We watch our weight, check our cholesterol, buckle our seatbelts, wash our hands and wear a mask, look both ways before we cross the street, vaccinate our babies, practice shooting at the range and call 911 when our chest tightens up and we (or our spouse) can’t breath. Why is that?

We also share our food with those who are hungry, rather than assuming it’s simply their time to go. We pass laws and commission police to enforce them and protect our lives. We learn CPR and hang defibrillators on the wall so we can save a life. We post signs that warn of high voltage, sharp turns and slippery floors. Why is that?

After forty hungry days in the desert, Jesus and Satan had an interesting conversation. Satan suggested to Jesus that he jump off the top of the temple, relying on the promise that the angels would take care of him and catch him. Jesus refused. Why? Because you don’t put God to the test. Challenging God isn’t trusting Him. He’ll very quickly remind you that He can’t be manipulated. (This is also a good reminder to always check your sources.)

James, a half-brother of Jesus, wisely pointed out that if you come across someone who doesn’t have clothes or food, you don’t simply say, “Have a nice day. Too bad your time is up.” A faith like that is worthless. James used a stronger word: dead. Trusting God means attending to the life-saving needs of others.

Paul wrote, “If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). If you have nothing to look forward to other than death, by all means do what ever you want. It doesn’t make any difference.

But, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20). We’ve been redeemed from an empty way of life by the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18,19). Life, in both this life and the next, is precious and valuable. This truth moves us to provide food, drink, hospitality, clothing, healing and fellowship for the people around us as if we were giving it to Jesus Himself (Matthew 25:35, 36). That is what faith looks like.

I often remind people that we need not fear death, for our last breath in this world will be followed by our first breath in the next. Death has lost its sting because of the resurrection of Christ. We can live each day to its fullest in light of the life He gives us.

I often remind people that life is sacred, too. So from the womb to hospice, we provide the best care we can. Sometimes that means helping moms raise their kids alone. Sometimes it means triple-bypass open-heart surgery. Sometimes it means eating a little less fried chicken and donuts and more fruits and vegetables. Sometimes it means giving someone a room in my house to stay for a while. Sometimes it means washing my hands a few extra times and wearing a mask. Sometimes it means giving away my money so another church in another country can feed the children in a community on a Saturday.

Yes, my life is in His hands. From before my birth to my last breath and for eternity. I commend myself into His hands, my body and soul and all that I have. I remember that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. And I love Him with all my heart, mind, soul and strength by loving my neighbor as myself. It’s never about me. It’s always about Him and them.

My days may be numbered, but I cannot and will not take one of them for granted. Each one is a gift, a gift from Him.