Sorry, we’re closed.

A local fitness center closed its doors last week without any advance warning to employees or clients. Just a note on the door saying informing all they were out of business.

This got me thinking. What if you arrived at church one Sunday morning and found a note like that on the locked front doors? I’m not in any way suggesting that’s going to happen. I’m just curious. What would you do? What would I do?

Would you call someone? Who would you call? The pastor? Your elder (you know who your elder is, right?) The president of the congregation? The friends you usually sit with?

Would you stick around and wait for others to arrive? Maybe someone else will know what’s going on.

Would you find another worship service to attend that day? Or would you just shrug your shoulders and go to breakfast? I know that’s sounds kind of harsh. I’m just working through some of the possibilities, even the absurd ones.

Would you make an effort to find out what happened? Did something happen to the pastor? What happened to all the money? Would you contact the district or the synod offices to ask if they knew anything?

What would you do in the weeks or months to come? Would you find another church to attend? Would you band together with other members to reopen that ministry? Or would you feel betrayed and just give up on church altogether?

Even though the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church of Jesus Christ, local congregations do close. And I’ll bet some of them close suddenly, permanently and without notice. And we never even find out why. If you search the internet for info on church closings, you’ll learn that about 100 close their doors every week in our nation.

We all take it for granted each Sunday morning that when we arrive, we’ll walk through the doors and everything will be prepared for us to worship. Have you ever thought about your role in that reality? Or do you leave that for someone else to worry about? What part do you play in making sure that sign is never taped to the front door of your church?

The best candlelight moment ever?

This past Christmas Eve candlelight moment felt like the best one ever.

I’ve been doing Christmas Eve for a pretty long time. As in many churches, our evening worship concludes with the all the lights out as we sing “Silent Night” while holding lit candles. The moment is meant to take us back to that night when the shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem heard that the Savior had been born.

It sounds simple enough, but involves more than you might imagine. The music, lights, and open flames must be negotiated during the highest attended worship service of the year. Half of those present have never been to our church before. Some of those who volunteer to help with worship duties are absent, visiting family for the holiday. There is no dress rehearsal. It’s go time. We just say a prayer, light them up and hope for the best.

This year, the sermon was over, the offerings had been gathered, and the moment of truth arrived. I lit my candle from the Christ candle in the center of the Advent wreath and stepped forward to meet four ushers waiting for me. They each dipped their unlit candle to mine, and took the flame down each aisle so that worshipers could in turn light their candles.

The organist began quietly playing “Silent Night,” pacing the verses to match the time needed to light all the candles and help the toddlers find their glow sticks. Glow sticks for the “littles” was a new idea for us this year. And it was great. Since the sticks would glow for 8-10 hours, the kids could break them early in the evening and still have lots of light to last through the night. With no fire or hot wax to worry about, they could be a very active part of this moment.

I could see the sound technician and organist carefully watching the progress of the flames through the congregation. The ushers remembered to turn off the hallway and quiet room lights. As the organist brought up the volume, signaling that we were just about to sing, the room went dark.

Well, almost. Against the darkness of the sanctuary, hundreds of lit candles suddenly illuminated our worship space, like countless stars in the dark night sky. The timing was perfect, and from my place at the front of the church, I heard a collective gasp from those moved just as much as I was at that moment.

As our voices filled the room, it wasn’t hard to imagine the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest!” As the song concluded, I prayed, we said the Lord’s Prayer, and I gave the benediction. At the moment we blew out our candles, the lights came up and we launched into “Joy to the World.” The timing was perfect.

I don’t want any of the credit for that. It’s just a grace moment as many hands did their jobs to the glory of God.

Later that week, someone sent me an email, thanking me for my prayer I said before the benediction that night. I have to admit, I don’t remember what I said. I had to go back and listen to the end of the service, which I had streamed live on Facebook that night. My prayer went like this:

Almighty God, Heavenly Father, You said that Your Son Jesus was the light, the light no darkness could overcome. We thank You for sending that light into our world and into our lives, for shining that light into our hearts through Your powerful word, so that we can walk in the light and never in the darkness. Even if we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death, you are with us Lord, and darkness and light are always the same to you. With you we feel safe, with you we have life and with you we have light. Bless our celebration of your birth tonight and tomorrow. Thank you all your gifts of grace, for answering prayers, for unexpected blessings, for strength when we need it, and new friends along the way. Thank you for blessing our congregation and our ministry together. May we be exactly what Jesus says we are, the light of the world.

Nothing fancy. Simple always works on Christmas Eve. There’s not much I can add to the miracle of the incarnation other than thanks and praise. We had spent our season of Advent talking about darkness and light. Thanks, Lord, for making that moment real for us gathered together that night!

The renewal of my mind

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Photo by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

This morning was a little different for me. Rather than two morning worship services, we had just one focused on God’s grace, especially for veterans and local heroes from our fire and sheriff’s departments. It was at a later time, so my Sunday morning began a little later than usual. We had a special guest preacher, too, so I didn’t have to worry about a sermon. I had a rare chance to simply sit and listen, reflect and renew my mind.

Paul’s words in Romans 12 are familiar, but I don’t know that I ever really put my finger on how to renew my mind. But that’s exactly what happened today. In a few moments of quiet, I jotted down a few ways that my mind was renewed today.

  • Since last Tuesday, much of the news in Florida was about the election results and now recounts because the contests were so close. There are a lot of strong feelings on both sides and will continue to be as official results are announced later this week. But worship today reminded me that the Lord is still on the throne. Always has been. Always will be. No recounts. No contest. That truth puts my mind at ease. One less thing to wonder about when I fall asleep tonight.
  • Worship also reorients my thinking from guilt to grace. The pressure to be better and do more comes from within myself as well as those around me. But when we gather as a church family, it’s all about how good Christ is and how much he’s done. It’s a lot easier and refreshing to be myself when the spotlight is on him.
  • The final benediction reminds me that God looks at me with approval. In his eyes I’m not just OK, I’m righteous. That reality helps me think of myself differently, with a renewed mind.

I don’t get that anywhere else. For me, that’s reason enough to want to be with the church each Sunday.

Going to church in an age of mass shootings

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Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

It has happened in schools and movie theaters, on military bases and college campuses, in nightclubs and churches. Someone walks in and opens fire, killing and wounding innocent people.

Yes, it’s happened churches. How has this reality changed the dynamic of going to church? As the pastor of a Lutheran church, I never worried about it very much till a few years ago. Our church doors are still open every Sunday and we still welcome anyone and everyone who wants to worship. But somethings have changed. Here are a few of my observations:

More worshipers are carrying weapons

I don’t know who all is carrying on a Sunday morning, but I know that the number has grown over the last year. With holsters or purses designed to be inconspicuous, the person sitting next to you in church may well have a permit and a handgun with them. I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I feel good knowing that these folks have taken steps to protect themselves and the congregation. On the other hand, I pray that they have taken some classes and know how to use the weapon safely.

We now have an emergency plan

A few of our members who have been police officers, military or security have sat down and developed an emergency plan, should a threat arise. The plan includes dealing with medical, fire and storm emergencies, as well as violence. They make a conscious effort to keep an eye on the room where we gather for worship, taking note of anything out of the ordinary. I’m thankful for those who bring that training and experience to the table.

Such times are not without precedent in the bible. When Nehemiah was overseeing the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem after the return from Babylonian exile, half of the workers did construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. Some of the workers held a tool in one hand and a weapon in the other (Nehemiah 4:16,17).

We are better at welcoming guests

Things have calmed down recently, but for a few months we were on edge. We carefully watch anyone arriving for worship whom we don’t recognize. I know that sounds a little unfriendly, but it actually enhanced our welcome. We make a concerted effort to welcome and get to know our guests.

One morning a young many with a backpack arrived for worship on a bicycle. After entering the church, he left his backpack in the back row while he went out to lock up his bike. The pulse of the sopranos and altos began to race as they watched this happen from the front row of the choir loft. The gentleman returned to his seat and worshiped with us without any incident.

We have a remote alert system

We’ve installed what some have called a “panic button.” It’s really just a way for me to alert the elder and ushers to something going on. From the front of the church, I can see everything happening in the room, while most of the worshipers are facing the altar. If I see someone come in late who needs help or see something out of the ordinary in the entryway, I can push a button, a small light flashes in front of them, and I have their attention. I have not had to actually use this yet, and I’d be fine never having to use it.

We are more thankful than ever for the freedom to worship

Along with the uncertainty of what might happen on any given day, we enjoy a freedom to worship that is still one of God’s greatest blessings. We ought never take that for granted.

It has not always been this way. Early Christians met in secret to worship, knowing that if they were caught they could be put to death. Conditions were much the same not that long ago in the Soviet Union and China.

I have worshiped in inner city churches where iron gates at the front door were locked when worship began and did not open until it was time to go home. The shadow of similar iron bars could be seen through the stained-glass windows. Yes, it was that kind of a neighborhood.

I have worshiped in other countries, where every gas station was protected by armed attendants and an armed guard accompanied us to church where the ushers all had nine millimeter handguns on their belts. The worship – in a language I didn’t know – was vibrant, Spirit-filled, heart-felt, and well-guarded.

My greatest fear

Having said all that, my greatest fear has nothing to do with weapons or shooters. The greatest danger we face is that parents do not bring their children to church. For a wide variety of reasons, so many mothers and fathers do not regularly avail themselves of our freedom to worship, teaching the next generation that it is not important. If we do not raise our children in the fear and knowledge of the Lord, will religious freedom mean anything to them? If that freedom is threatened, limited, or taken away, will they even care? Or will it have no effect on their lifestyle at all?

That’s what frightens me.

 

 

 

A busy Sunday morning

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I may only work one day a week, but that day is a lot busier than most people realize. Here’s what I mean:

About ten minutes before worship begins, I see a man in a wheelchair across the sanctuary trying to get my attention, wiggling his finger in the air, summoning me like a waiter at a restaurant. I make my way over so he can tell me, “Pastor, will you bring communion back to me” “Yes.” (Just like I do each and every Sunday morning. BTW, no tip, either.)

As I walk over to introduce myself to some guests, a woman bundled up in a coat and scarf stops me to comment, “Why is it so cold in here! We’re wasting energy on so much air conditioning!” I confess, I did not do well in the HVAC class at the seminary, but I do notice the woman behind her fanning herself with a worship folder. I promise, “I’ll see what I can do.”

As I head towards the vestry to put on my alb, I pass by someone who suggests that someone ought to update the bulletin boards, especially the empty black one in the entryway. “Well you see,” I explain, “That is actually supposed to depict the inside of the tomb on Holy Saturday. What do you think?”

Dressed and ready to begin worship, a couple asks me, “Can we borrow some chairs from the fellowship hall?” I shrug, “Ok by me.” An usher notifies me that we may not have enough weekly newsletters to give out. “I guess folks will have to share.” As I make my way to the chancel, someone comments, “My birthday didn’t get printed in the weekly newsletter. I guess that means I don’t have to celebrate one this year!”

After worship, a man mentions to me that I can go with the cub scout pack any weekend they are camping. Before, I would have said, “That’s great, but you know, I do work on Sundays.” But now I’m thinking that might not be a bad idea at all.

How about a few new prayers?

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Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

Every week, the prayer of the church includes petitions based on the readings for the day, for pastors and missionaries, for our nation and leaders, for the sick and sorrowing, and for those who will receive the sacrament. Then, I ask, “Are there any other prayers you would like to include?” As hands are raised, I make my way around the sanctuary to pray for other individual concerns. The vast majority of the requests are for those who are sick, having surgery soon, or at the end of life.

That’s OK. Scripture tells us that if someone is sick, pray for them. But aren’t there any other things we can pray about? What about praying for someone’s salvation? Or for a church just getting started? Or for some new ministry opportunity? Or for the community? How about thanks? Or praise?

Just mix it up a little. Otherwise people start to tune out. Let’s push the boundaries a bit, stretch our comfort zone, explore new territory. What do you think?

 

Feliz anniversario Vida de Fe

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Pastor Juan Boneta from Palm Coast (left) and his son Pastor Moises Boneta from Vineland, NJ

Tonight, I had the privilege of going to a fifth anniversary worship service of Vida de Fe, the Hispanic congregation that has used our chapel on Sunday afternoons for the past four-and-a-half years. Pastor Juan Boneta and I have been good friends that whole time, so it was an honor to be there for their celebration.

It was cross-cultural experience for me. First, the service was sung and spoken in Spanish. Pastor Juan and his son Moises, who preached, did provide some English translation, mostly for me. other than that, I only had Jesus, Senor, Dios, Cinco años, casa, and hallelujah to work with. It was kind of a Pentecost moment, where many heard the message in their own language.

The service lasted about three hours, longer than I, definitely an American worshiper, was used to. The sermon didn’t begin until the two-hour fifteen-minute mark. It was preceded by music, prayers, special presentations and guests who brought greetings.

I was warmly welcomed by all and got a certificate of thanks. In my comments, I shared how one of our members insisted that we build a chapel as part of our new sanctuary building thirteen years ago. It was designed and served well for smaller gatherings. When we built it, we had no idea that this mission would be using the space. But God did, and both churches were blessed in the process.

I’m glad I got to attend, and I am glad I got home for the second half of the Super Bowl, too. A pretty good Sunday.

 

 

 

Celebrating Epiphany

wise menWhat is it about Epiphany that makes it so appealing? Is it because it’s usually the first Sunday of a new year? Is there something about the wise men that captures our imagination? Is it the music, from “We Three Kings of Orient Are” to “As With Gladness Men of Old”? I can’t put my finger on it, but there was certainly more energy in the air today at church than there was, say last week, the Sunday after Christmas. And I know it won’t be as easy to command their attention with the Baptism of our Lord next week.

My grandson spent about thirty minutes looking at and playing with the characters in the stable on display in the sanctuary, as three camels and three wise men joined the shepherds, sheep, cow, donkey and the holy family. For the children’s sermon I had some frankincense and myrrh for them to smell. They weren’t impressed. But they know what the gold was! They got to take a shiny gold coin with them because I had plenty – a bag of 144 for just a few bucks.

There is something exotic, mysterious, and treacherous about these visitors from the east. We’re not sure we trust them. They don’t prove themselves until they return home a different way instead of reporting back to Herod. They bring great gifts that point to Jesus’ roles as king, priest and sacrifice.

A bright star, an angelic dream, several fulfilled prophecies, and a dramatic escape – it’s just a great story, I guess.

In your shoes

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Photo by Radek Skrzypczak on Unsplash

For this post I am going to try and put myself in your shoes. The shoes of someone who is a member of our church, who has come faithfully for a number of years, but recently begun to waver in regularity. What is that like, what do you expect, and what’s your vision of the future?

You see, I don’t have that option. Not yet, anyway. I have to be there every week whether I like it or not. Hey, when the preacher is absent, people notice! But one day I won’t be the preacher. I’ll be an attender, a worshiper, a statistic, a member, or whatever.

What if I just stop attending? Will someone call and ask, “Hey, where have you been? We’ve missed you.” Do I want someone to call? Or do I just to be able to do something else? Do I just want to be left alone?

This is such a good question for pastors and laypeople alike. I was taught that you must know who is not there and follow up with them. Absent from worship for three weeks? You better be on the phone or at their door. One more week and they are gone.

But what if those folks don’t want to be called? What if they just want to be left alone? What if they just need a break? I know, I shouldn’t be taking their side. But if I didn’t attend, and didn’t want to get up on a Sunday morning to attend worship, would I want a pastor chasing me down? Some might. I’m thinking many wouldn’t. I’m not sure I would.

Which leads me to my next question. How much time should I (pastors) spend chasing down people who don’t want to come to church? Oh, come on, you know there will always be families and individuals who considers themselves “members” who never actually show up. Are they lost sheep? Or are they not sheep at all?

When the crowds walked away from Jesus, he didn’t pursue them. He wanted willing followers. Some followed him, some who were a part of his flock, some who knew his voice. And some of them had their issues, like Peter and Judas.

At a recent pastor’s conference, I heard a brother say he spent Sunday afternoons going around to the homes of those who hadn’t been in worship that morning. Holy cow. I appreciate your commitment. But I’m not doing that. Maybe I’m not doing my job. So be it. But maybe you are taking yours too seriously. Either way if  the kingdom of God is all about righteousness, peace, and joy, I think we can all relax a little, go out to lunch, take a nap, and let God do the heavy lifting.