A pile of stuff

It looks like the rental property just a few houses up from mine is turning over once again. How do I know? Most of the contents of the house been evicted, only to find a new home on the front lawn. A pile of sofas is also staged inside the garage, waiting for their trip to the curb.

It’s a small home, it’s been a rental for a long time, and it’s had a number of tenants over the years. The thing that caught my attention this time is that most of the stuff out front seems to be smashed, broken, cracked, dented and otherwise damaged. Were all the drawers from that dresser broken apart inside the house? Were all those bike wheels bent and twisted? Were those chairs ripped and torn? Or did those emptying out the house damage everything on the way out the door? Was it deliberate? Frustration? Anger?

The contents of our homes tell a story, don’t they? It might be a happy story, of times spent with family and friends. It might be a sad story, of violence or even death. Spread out on the street, they might announce that you just got new furniture or remodeled your home. They might also reveal the consequences of losing your job or the health to live in that home anymore.

You might not want to share that story with the world. But sometimes, your trash has much to say about what’s going on in your life.

They thought I was kidding

As I began preaching yesterday, I mentioned that there are some in the congregation who believe I should more confrontational, more aggressive, more direct in my preaching, along the lines of John the Baptist. JTB didn’t pull any punches calling his audience a “brood of vipers” who didn’t take repentance seriously, basically trees bearing nothing but rotten fruit that should be cut down and burned.

I said that maybe I should zero in on our smug self-righteousness, our neglect of the poor, and our failure to witness. Rather than children of God we look more like the descendants of the serpent himself.

After each of those examples, many in the congregation smiled, snickered and audibly chuckled. As I spoke, I felt personally convicted about each of those offenses, but they didn’t. Either they really didn’t take it seriously, or I didn’t preach the law clearly. And if they didn’t get the law, did they get the gospel? Did they think I was kidding about that, too?

Feedback after a sermon is valuable, but rare. It may come in the form of a comment or question after worship or later in the week. But it might also come in the moment, from a look in their eyes or an expression on their faces. The latter was true yesterday, and it was humbling.

I don’t want to get caught in the trap of believing I’ve got this down, that I know how to effectively reach an audience. As soon as I do, I let down my guard, I don’t work as hard as I should, and I’m nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. You can either humble yourself and work hard, or you can let God humble you so you can get back to work.

Either way, by his grace, there’s another Sunday coming up. Another chance. Thank you!

Learning to communicate

So I’m learning how to communicate with someone who can’t communicate. I’m talking about my three-week old granddaughter. I’m fascinated by one who can’t speak or understand a word, yet can communicate so much.

Her face, cries and body language effectively communicate discomfort, curiosity, recognition, surprise, anger and contentment. She responds to voice, music, touch, motion, a breeze, and a smile. Without speaking a word, we communicate very well with each other!

In contrast, there are many adults I speak with who completely misunderstand my words. Or sometimes as I listen I have no idea what someone is talking about.

So one of my “blessings du jour” is learning to communicate – from someone who herself is just learning how to communicate! My granddaughter reminds me to watch the eyes, the mouth, the hands and the feet. Those parts of the body speak non-verbal volumes. She also reminds me to listen to the pitch, the timbre, and the volume of the voice. Or the silence. When I pick her up and she suddenly calms down, it’s clear that she just needed to be held. Words weren’t necessary. But human touch was. My nose tips me off to what she needs, too. (And you know exactly what I’m talking about!)

Much of my work as a pastor is communication. I preach the word in season and out of season. I proclaim the excellencies of the one who called me out of darkness into his marvelous light. I’m ready to give a reason for the hope I have. I teach. I listen as a person confesses their sin, and then speak absolution. I have ears to hear God’s word. And I not only call upon him in the day of trouble, but I pray, praise and give thanks.

I am still learning how to do all these things, from someone who is also learning to communicate!

In secret

In Matthew 6, right in the middle of the sermon on the mount, Jesus commends private rather than public giving, praying and fasting. If you do these things to be seen by others, that will be your only reward — being seen by others. However, when you do these things without any fanfare or recognition, “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:4,6, and 18).

I suppose I’d prefer to be secretly rewarded by God rather than a few seconds of approval from the public. But what kind of rewards are we talking about here? What is the benefit of doing these three spiritual activities?

I’m going to tackle each one individually. First up: giving. Don’t do it to be seen, appreciated or praised. Instead, don’t even let your right hand know what your left is doing. Keep it strictly confidential. That’s how you’ll get the most bang for the buck when giving.

Greed is a tough attitude to break. We always want more, and that desire for more can easily control us or consume us. When we give, we demonstrate control over that desire, responding to God’s desire that we be merciful. It’s not my resources I trust, but him. It’s not money I worship, but him. The reward I most often gain after secret giving is a new heart and a right spirit, created by God.

Next, secret prayer brings a secret reward, too. Prayer always changes my focus from the world around me to him. In that moment, I am focused on heavenly things, which last forever, rather than this world which is all too quickly gone. Prayer means I’m actually talking with God, the Creator and my Savior. He’s not far away, he’s not ignoring me, he’s not too busy. We have time for each other. This can change my who perspective on a moment, a day or my life. That’s rewarding.

Secret fasting? Not as common as the first two. I guess that means you’d never want to let the public know via social media that you were fasting! I learned a few years ago that fasting isn’t always complete abstention from food. It might be not eating a meal or not eating as much. In any event, it is taking thoughtful control of a necessary part of your life. They say that if you can control one little part of your life, you get a better handle on the rest of it too. Mindfully choosing not to eat reminds you that you are walking by the Spirit, not according to the flesh. You aren’t controlled by your body, your desires, or the world around you. You’ve got a handle on those things. If your life is spinning out of control, one little intentional act can stop the momentum long enough to give you a better perspective. Your life isn’t spinning out of control. You’ve got this one thing…and then another…and then another.

Perhaps the best secret reward is intentionally relating to God. You are responding to him, not anything else inside of you or outside of you. It think it’s interesting that if you want to do something to improve your spiritual life, you don’t do something spiritual. You do something physical. Give. Kneel. Fast. And your spirit follows.

Burrito!

At Good News Club last Monday, we started a new unit called “Jesus: God Who Came to Earth.” The kickoff lesson, was as you might imagine, the Christmas story. Fresh from winter break and right on the heels of Epiphany, it was perfect timing.

We never take for granted that any of the kids have heard any of the bible stories, not even the biggies, Christmas and Easter. I suppose we should never assume anyone of any age has heard those stories. And we should never assume that anyone who has heard them ever tires of hearing them again. I know I never do.

Anyway, we got to the part of Christ’s birth where the angel tells the shepherds that they will find the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. None of the kids knew what swaddling cloths were, so I explained that it’s wrapping up a baby like a burrito. If you do it well, the baby feels snug and secure and drifts off to sleep.

At the mention of burrito, the room came alive. Everyone wanted to share their favorite burrito. From Moe’s to Chipotle to Qdoba to Taco Bell, everyone wanted to tell me where they liked to get burritos. Every once in a while you strike a nerve, and a disinterested room suddenly erupts with excitement.

I don’t know if I have a favorite burrito restaurant, but I do have a friend who attacked and conquered one of the biggest burritos I’ve ever seen last Sunday at Mr. Pancho in Palm Coast. It was the size of a log you’d toss on a fire on a cold night. It must have weighed at least two pounds. And it must have been delicious, because it was soon just a lunchtime memory.

But I digress. When you’re telling stories, sometimes you hit it and sometimes you miss. When you hit it, it makes it all worthwhile!

“I’m going to have to come to church every week!”

Heard at confirmation class last night: “But Pastor, if I’m going to finish up my sermon reports this year, I’m going to have to go to church every week!” And yes, this comment was accompanied by a suitably horrified face, as if I had threatened to break their fingers.

Their comment wasn’t entirely correct. I pointed out that they needed ten more sermon reports, and that there were at least twenty-two more worship services between now and confirmation Sunday. For some reason, this did not provide them much comfort. They were still a bit disgusted.

The reason I require sermon reports is to stimulate worship attendance. I ask for twelve during the class which meets from September through April. For some reason, families had it in their head that their children could become confirmed members of the church without ever actually participating in the life of the congregation. This is actually the exact opposite of my goal: to equip them for a lifetime of involvement in the life of a congregation.

At the end of every sermon report, I leave a space for “What questions do you have about the sermon?” Ironically, the student who lamented going to church actually did a sermon report last week and wrote this question, “How can someone get closer to God and strengthen their faith?” Yes, I have an answer for them. It goes something like this: God gave you the gift of the church!

I wish I could connect some of these students and their families with those in our congregation who wish they could get to church. For any number of health and family reasons, they can’t be with us, and they would give anything to be able to come. They’d let someone break their fingers if they could come. Well, maybe. You know what I mean. What a contrast.

I’m not going to give up. I truly enjoy teaching this age group, we have a good time, and it keeps me young to hang out with the youth. The evil one keeps whispering, “Why bother?” But I hold on to the hope that maybe the brief time I have with them will be a seed that grows sometime in their life. They may not all get confirmed because some of them won’t actually do anything, but they will get the gospel each and every time I get to teach them. And that is powerful.

I got more religious cards this year.

This year we received a total of twenty-nine Christmas cards. Unlike previous years, the religious cards outnumbered the secular by 18-11.

I broke out the religious-themed cards into two categories; those that included a baby Jesus, and those that didn’t. Eight of the cards had a nativity. Ten had images of churches, Bethlehem, snowy woods and evergreens with references to the birth of Christ.

All of the cards were very beautiful this year. I know it’s harder and harder to find scriptural cards. You have to look long and hard. But the artwork and poetry make the search worthwhile. Some of my friends sent multiple cards in an envelope, just to make sure which side won this year!

Six of the secular cards were pictures of family. That’s kind of a different category. I enjoy seeing those collages, especially when I haven’t seen them on social media.

I have to admit, we didn’t send out Christmas cards this year. Didn’t send them last year, either. We keep in touch with everyone we know all year round via social media. Sending the cards doesn’t have as much meaning as it did in the past. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Losing the physical to the digital is easy and convenient, but is a little empty compared to holding a card in your hand.

Some high ticket items at…Costco?

Clearly a power shopper

Not quite a power shopper

You don’t really know you need anything at Costco until you get there. Once you begin wandering the aisles, you suddenly realize you need socks, razors, many, many rolls of paper towels, croissants, berries and coffee pods.

And maybe even jewelry. Until yesterday’s trip, I had never thought to browse the jewelry counter at Costco. But on our way towards the registers, we stopped just to see what they had. I was impressed. An $8,000 watch. A $44,000 diamond ring in a platinum setting. Wow. Really? At Costco?

Would anyone really drop that much money on an item at Costco? Would anyone with that kind of money really be shopping at Costco in the first place? My gut reaction is, “Of course not.” But then again, would they really carry inventory that never sold?

There must be something psychological going on here. Maybe a $25,000 ring looks like a bargain when sitting next to one that costs twice as much. Maybe the $800 watch feels more affordable when next to one you never could afford. Maybe there are just there to make you laugh as you walk away with the $1,000 ring. A sale is a sale, right?

The power shoppers at Costco all push wagons stacked with so much stuff they cannot possible see where they are going. Better get out of the way. The real Costco members buy 30 rolls of paper towels at a time, stock up on twice that much toilet paper, fill their pantry with fifty pound bags of rice, and delight in checking out with a sofa-in-a-box.

I guess I have a lot to learn about discount warehouse shopping.

What I learned writing Advent devotions

This past season of Advent, I wrote daily devotions which I sent to anyone interested in receiving them. I had about twenty-five folks subscribe, so I was committed to twenty-four devotions, beginning December 1. I chose a selection of bible passages that mentioned darkness and light as the calendar moved us slowly but surely to the winter solstice. The increasing darkness each day was a perfect backdrop for the coming of light, fuel for both physical and spiritual insights. Here are a few things I learned writing this collection of devotions.

  • From the beginning to the end, there are a lot of verses in the bible that mention dark and light. While darkness is used to describe sin, wickedness and death, light brings hope, righteousness and life.
  • Writing daily devotions is hard work. Especially when you’re working from a theme. (I wrote devotions last Lent, too, but used two chapters of a gospel.) Even though each was only three- to five-hundred words, I often struggled to find meaning or application for the passages. This is actually a good thing. It made me stop and think, dig a little deeper, and find personal application. Each one had an important lesson for me.
  • I didn’t get much feedback. Maybe that’s a good thing. My writing could probably use some work. Anyway, you never know who is or who isn’t reading your work. Apart from a few, “I’m really enjoying your devotions,” I didn’t get many comments at all.
  • When you are writing every day, you develop a rhythm. You get into a groove. The more you write, the easier it is to write. I am sure the daily routine improved my writing. It is a good discipline to commit to.
  • I think I wrote more for myself than for others. I wanted to show myself that I could do it. I felt the need to create rather than just consume ideas and insights.

I’m not sure if I’ll do this again. I felt like I could only write once a day, so I put my blog on hold. It took time, maybe ninety minutes or so every day. That’s a lot of time to devote.

But I probably will.