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!

What a great box!

When I arrived at my daughter’s house the other day to watch her boys for a few hours, there was a box at the front door that must have just been delivered. I brought it inside with me and there were puzzled looks because no one remembered ordering anything. Inside was some swag my son-in-law had won at work, a nice perk. Plus – a nice box.

As soon as he unpacked the content of the box, one of my grandsons climbed in and curled up. He almost fit in the box! He then turned it over and hid underneath the box, as if he were some kind of turtle. Then both boys climbed in the box and rocked around like they were in a boat of some sort. It was as if someone had flipped the creativity switch in their little minds and turned an ordinary, reused box into the toy of the year!

And then I had a flashback. Suddenly it was 1990, I was living in Connecticut, and I was taping together all kinds of larges cardboard boxes to form a fort or spaceship or castle for my two older children when they were of preschool age. We fashioned doors from the ends, cut windows in the sides, colored pictures and furniture inside and created a playscape that entertained them for days. I don’t know if they remember that time, but in my mind it’s like yesterday.

Why is it that the container is more fun than the contents? This is a profound question for parents and grandparents who invest a lot in toys for our kids and grandkids. Is it because of the creative possibilities? A single box can be any number of different vehicles, structures or projectiles. Is it because you can go for broke? In other words, if you destroy the boxes, who cares? It was destined for recycling anyway! Is it because they are bigger than you and you can get in them? You can step into an alternate reality if you’ve got a box to play in!

The best box we ever had delivered to our house was about 5 ft. x 4 ft. x 2 ft. It was filled with packing peanuts and…wait for it…a tuba. My son was going to music school, needed a decent tuba and we bought one from the Baltimore Brass Works. They delivered the instrument to our home and dropped it off in front of the garage. I don’t remember what we did with that box or all those packing peanuts. But I’d like to buy another tuba just to take delivery and see the look on my grandchildren’s faces when they see that box and imagine the possibilities!

“Here are some treats.”

My dog Samson and I had just headed out for a longer walk yesterday afternoon when a neighbor unloading her car said, “Hey, I’ve got something for you!” I don’t know her name, but I am certain we’ve waved at each other before. She handed me a grocery bag and said, “Here are some dog treats. We just had to put our dog down, and you’re the first one I saw, so you can have them.”

The words put our dog down immediately tugged at my heart. In an instant I pictured every single one I ever had to put to sleep. I said, “I know that’s hard. How old was your dog?”

“She was thirteen-an-a-half; just a little Yorkie.” As far as I’m concerned, the words “just” or “little” aren’t appropriate for describing our dogs. Each one claims significant acreage in our hearts, regardless of their actual size or age. That brief moment of sharing spoke volumes. But all I could say was, “Thank you so much!”

Sam and I talked about the encounter as we continued our walk. Well, he just listened, as I reflected how nice it was to take home an extra bag of treats and what a good dog he was.

The real reason for the visit

I thought I knew why I was there.

I mean, I go to visit people all the time. I visit folks who are first time worshipers with us. I visit others who are struggling with problems. I visit some who are recovering, sick or dying. I visit some just because that’s what pastors do. On site pastoral care is part of the job. But sometimes I learn the reason for my visit after I arrive.

I recently thought I was visiting a couple who had decided to join our congregation. Because of travel, hurricanes and family deaths, our meeting had been postponed for a while. We finally got together and had a really good conversation about church, ministry, the future and some of the uncertainties of life.

As often happens, ninety minutes passed like a moment. As I prepared to bring the conversation to a close and head home, something blipped on my radar. We had both lost a father in past three months. Her brief comment about grief, stress and sadness made me pause. I believe the Holy Spirit nudged me to stay, inquire, and listen to my friends talk about their loss. That’s the reason I was there.

Everything else we talked about, everything else on the agenda faded away as we shared stories about the last days of our fathers. She needed to speak. I needed to listen. Stories needed to be told. Stories needed to be heard.

I am thankful that I decided to simply listen. I wasn’t there to process a new member. Or answer their questions about our church. Or find out how they wanted to be a part of their ministry. I was there to listen to a grieving daughter mourn, remember and thank God for her father.

And I was there to mourn, remember and give God thanks for my father, too. Sometimes I forget that I am still processing this life-changing event from just a few months ago. Life moves on at such a fast pace that it’s easy to forget that we need time to figure all this out.

So, was this visit more for me or for them? Who knows? Probably both.

Two projects

I believe that every homeowner like myself has an endless to-do list. Home ownership comes with plenty of maintenance, decorating, repair and remodeling projects which must be done in your spare time, when you aren’t working. I had a eureka moment the other day as I lamented that my list never seemed to get shorter.

I decided that I would set a goal of two projects per week, one inside and one outside. The projects would be in addition to weekly tasks like lawn work, cleaning or shopping. Each project would take less than two hours. Just imagine: if I did this for a whole year, I would get 104 projects done!

To do this, I would have to break some of my bigger projects into smaller chunks. I can’t paint every interior door in two hours, but I can finish two. I might not be able to make every garden look perfect, but I can spruce up one of them in a few hours. I can power wash the driveway or clean some windows or clean out the gutters. In the course of a week, I can always find a few hours to do something and thereby always feel like I am making progress.

My idea is not new, of course. It is my rendition of eating the elephant one bite at a time. But it is a newer approach for me. I won’t feel like I’m always working on projects. But I will also feel like I am getting something done. A win-win with myself!

What is your vision? Idk.

One of the hardest questions for me to answer is, “What’s your vision for the church?” Variations on this theme: “Where do you see the church in five years?” “What are your goals for this ministry?” “What direction do you envision for the congregation?”

When I am confronted with the question, I usually hesitate. I have to admit, I have no broad vision for the church. I have no idea where the church headed. I have no idea what we’ll be in five years.

I think I have a hard time answering this question because I easily fall into the trap of responding in a quantitative way. For example, I envision a 25% increase in worship. Or doubling the number of our small groups. Or increasing the size of our Sunday School. Or increasing our mission giving by so much.

To tell you the truth, my vision is much more modest than that. I simply want the gospel to be clearly proclaimed in our worship. I want our parents to raise their children in the faith. I want the Sunday morning worshipers to live out their faith over the next week. I want those who gather for worship to forgive, serve and show mercy to others in school, at work, and in their neighborhood.

Those goals don’t sound like much. Those goals don’t affect our bottom line. They aren’t mentioned in the “fastest growing churches” magazine articles. They aren’t presented in “best practices” conferences. They aren’t impressive at all.

Before I decide what to bet, I need to look at the cards I’ve been dealt. In other words, I need to wait and see who God has added to our congregation before I know what direction we’ll take next.

Many of our newer members are not parents with children. They are grandparents with grandchildren who live far away. Many of our newer members are just retiring from their careers. They will serve the church much differently than they did when they were working and raising a family. Some of our newest member bring with them a wealth of wisdom, experience and wealth to our church. But they have worked hard and love the chance to be “retired.”

What if the future of the church isn’t the young, but those who are older? While we certainly want to bring children up in the fear and knowledge of the Lord, there are time when He builds His church with a much different demographic. Age is an asset, not a liability, in the church.

My vision for the church? Give me a moment or a week or a year. I need for fiddle with the focus and see what God is up to.

Then I’ll let you know.

Pileated Woodpecker

I was sitting out back a few days ago when I heard this repetitive pop, pop, pop, pop above my head. When I looked up into the trees in the lot next to my house, I saw a few woodpeckers hard at work on a tall pine tree. I had seen a pile of bark at the base of the tree, but hadn’t yet put two and two together. This tree was dead and filled with bugs, a wonderful buffet for the woodpeckers. This tree also needed to be reported to the city, too close to my house for comfort.

This bird appears to be a female Pileated Woodpecker. Crow-sized, she has the triangulate crest on the top of her head but I don’t see the red cheek stripe of the male. These woodpeckers like large, standing dead trees, in which they can drill for carpenter ants and other insects.

Two generations apart!

So I believe this is my thirty-fourth year teaching confirmation class for middle school students. I teach this class weekly during the school year for two years, covering half of the Small Catechism each year. This year I have eight students, four of whom are new and four returning students who will be confirmed next spring.

On my drive home last night, it occurred to me that I am now fifty years older than my students. That is two generations of space between us. On the one hand, that makes me feel old. On the other, it makes me feel young. For about ninety minutes each week, I enter their world, teaching them the timeless of truths of God’s Word. I love hearing how the Gospel applies to their world, which is a very different place than when I grew up.

This year I have a parent sitting in each week so I’m not alone with the class. Last night’s mom commented after class, “I feel like I should go home and slap both of my girls!” (She has two in the class.) I told her that wouldn’t be necessary. I’ve gotten used to the unique dynamic of teaching twelve to fourteen year old youth.

I like a lot of interaction, questions and answers, shock and awe, and of course, laughter. So to the casual observer, the class looks and sounds chaotic. There are often several conversations going on at the same time. We change subjects often. We pursue wild tangents. Amazingly, we just about always end up at the Gospel, which is the whole point, right?

Here are a few things I’ve noticed that haven’t changed and a few that are radically different in the lives of the middle school youth that I get to teach.

  • Algebra and Geometry are still hard. (I never thought so, but I’m a math guy. I liked that stuff.) We sometimes plot graphs, solve quadratic equations and do a couple of proofs, just for my amusement.
  • Every kid in this year’s class has an iPhone. No Android devices in this group. From what I understand, phones are mostly used to watch YouTube and look at memes. Most have a Bible app loaded, but I make them use a print version for most of the class. Siri is an entertaining ninth person in the class, too.
  • Teachers are still totally unresonable. According to my students, they assign way too much homework, hand out referrals for no reason at all, and rarely smile.
  • Friends are still extremely important. Everyone tosses the names of friends around when we talk about relationships, trust, forgiveness, betrayal, feelings and love. That is where the rubber hits the road.
  • Sin is hard to identify. They are all little Pharisees who don’t worship idols, haven’t murdered anyone, haven’t stolen anything, and honor God’s Word in worship, Sunday School and youth group. It takes many weeks to reveal the selfishness, materialism, jealousy and hate in their hearts and minds. Pretty much just like adults.
  • Even though they are exposed to a lot of violence, corruption and sex in the news and video games, they cringe when I speak honestly about blood, crucifixion, war, sexual immorality, abortion, and other graphic Biblical topics. The looks on their faces was priceless last night when I talked about Moses tossing blood on the altar and on the people as a part of God’s covenant with them in the Old Testament.
  • At times their knowledge base is extensive. Other times it is limited. I have had to delicately explain “circumcision,” a “blunt,” “prostitution,” what contitutes “sex,” and what really happens when an abortion is performed. When I do, I always report to my parents the topics that came up. I’ll bet you don’t envy me.
  • This year’s group is unique in that they are all involved in worship and most are present for Sunday School and serve in youth ministry as well. For the first time this year, I told a family who wanted to send their kids to class that they were welcome to attend, but I wouldn’t confirm them. This family historically is way too busy to ever attend worship. I wasn’t very nice about it, though. I think I was having a bad day.

Imagine your grandfather teaching your confirmation class. Yep, that’s me, gray hair and all. It sure makes me feel younger though. That’s why I keep coming back for more.

On the Sea of Galilee

Some of my favorite hours in Israel were spent in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Our boat was bigger that the disciples’ fishing boat and was motor rather than wind powered, but the water was the same surrounded by the same distant hills. It’s the same water the disciples fished in, the same water Jesus walked on, the same waves (though smaller) that Jesus calmed with a single wave.

We sailed on a beautiful clear morning. Gentle waves lapped at the sides of the boat. When the captain cut the engines, we heard nothing but a breeze and a few birds. It was a wonderful moment. If I closed my eyes, I was there with Jesus. I could easily have dozed off just like he did.

Not only did we walk where Jesus walked. We sailed where he sailed, too.

A few other boats out on the lake