Posted in church

Where do the ashes come from?

Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

The tradition of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday in the shape of a cross on the forehead is a tradition that dates to the 11th century church. They are a visible reminder that the wages of our sin is death, but by Jesus’ death on the cross, we have life. This worship practice kicks off the season of Lent, during which the church focuses on the suffering of Jesus for us.

I don’t remember ever having ashes on Ash Wednesday at the church my family went to when I was growing up. We were always members of a Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod congregation, and in the 1960s, the practice of receiving ashes on your forehead was a Roman Catholic tradition, and therefore one to stay away from.

I am not certain, but I believe the first time I experienced ashes on Ash Wednesday was in 1997 at our church in Florida. That was a time of restoring some ancient traditions in worship. The first time I did it, no one had saved any palms from the previous Palm Sunday. But surrounded by palm trees and palmettos, it was easy to gather up fronds to burn into ashes.

The first time around, I used a pan from the kitchen and set a bunch on fire. I had to throw out the ruined pan I used and the kitchen smelled horrible for a few days, but I had some ashes to use. I began saving the extra palm crosses from Palm Sunday that year. The trick is to remember where you have them stored away to use a year later.

That first year, someone asked me, “Whose ashes are those?” I would always explain where the ashes actually came from as well as their significance.

A colleague suggested baking the palm leaves to dry them out before burning them. Great idea, except the kitchen still smelled bad for a few days. This time, I took them outside to burn on some aluminum foil. This worked much better.

One year, I ordered some online. The ashes were very fine, much finer than I had ever been able to grind them up. This worked well, but I still felt like homemade were better.

The next year, I found the palm crosses, dried them thoroughly, burned them nicely, ground them up into a very fine ash. Best batch ever. Biggest batch ever. A little bit goes a long way. So I saved the ashes in a little jar I kept on my bookshelf. They lasted for years.

So when someone asked, “Where do the Ash Wednesday ashes come from?” I only had to point to the jar and say, “Right there.” But then I would explain the tradition and the process.

After retiring last summer, I didn’t think much about Ash Wednesday ashes until last week, when the church office manager called and asked, “Where did you get ashes? And do you know where the leftover palms are?”

Well, I explained, “if you can find the palm crosses from last year, you’ll need to bake them, burn them, and grind them up. Or you can just order some on Amazon.”

“I think we’ll order some this year.”

Posted in church, memories

They closed the church

My brother emailed me a few weeks ago to let me know that the church where we grew up, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania had closed. He thought the building was sold or given to an Ethiopian congregation that had been renting space there. The closing of the church feels like the loss of a close friend.

I was eight years old when our family moved from northeast Philadelphia to Ridley Park in 1965. We attended that church on Sundays because my aunt and grandmother lived in the adjacent apartment building, and that was their church. That’s how I became Lutheran.

When we first began worshiping there, the congregation met in a fairly small building that had a preschool and kindergarten wing on one side. I only have one memory from that older sanctuary. It’s from an Easter Sunday morning worship service. The pastor’s son, a few years older than me, was singing with the choir. He had a solo verse in a piece called, “In Joseph’s Lovely Garden.” He had a wonderful voice and sang well, but felt faint and passed out after his solo.

The congregation built a new sanctuary that I think was dedicated in 1968. My brother remembers going there with my dad to do things during construction, but I have no memories of that. The new sanctuary had two rows of 22 pews with a red-carpeted aisle between them. I know the exact number because I dusted them all many times when I worked there as a janitor while in high school. I have two vivid memories of the dedication worship service. From the loft the organ and piano played “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.” It was the first time I had ever heard that piece, and it too my breath away. The robed choir processed up and around the nave several times during the first hymn before ascending to the loft.

Our family always sat in the third pew from the front on the left hand side in front of the pulpit. My mom and dad never left us three kids there alone when they went up for Holy Communion. They went separately so the other could stay with us. A wise strategy. I didn’t find church all that exciting. The cross in the front consisted of many stained glass stones. We sat there and tried to count them all many, many times.

We never missed Sunday worship unless one of us was sick. I heard a lot of sermons from age eight until I graduated from high school. There is only one thing I remember from all my pastor’s sermons. He would preach about those who were on a “rolley-coaster to hell.” I’m not sure what that was, but I sure didn’t want to be on ride!

After high school, I went to college and then to work in New Jersey, only worshiping there when I was visiting my parents. Both mom and dad had their funerals there in 2005 and 2019 respectively. Over time, pastors came and went and the church went into a slow decline until her final service on May 9, 2021.

Over it’s seventy years, the church educated so many children on Sundays and during the week. It spawned four pastors that I know of, including my brother and I. It served it’s community in many ways.

If you grew up in the church, then you know there is something about the church you grew up in that makes it different than any other. When I grew up and moved away, it was hard to find a new place to worship. No other church ever really measured up.

Posted in church, Lent, Ministry

It’s time for purple

In liturgical churches like ours, the altar will look different this week. As the season of Lent begins on Wednesday, the paraments will be purple.

Purple was an expensive dye at the time of Jesus. It was made from the secretions of a certain snail. Thousands of those snails were needed even for a small amount of the dye. Only the rich, which usually meant royalty, could afford purple garments.

Jesus wore a purple robe just once, along with a crown of thorns, as soldiers mocked him for being a king (Mark 15:17). This color is a powerful reminder of that Jesus was despised and rejected, a path of suffering that culminated with his crucifixion.

Reminded of the sacrifice he made for us, we enter the season of Lent with repentance. Turning from our sin to our Savior, we will find forgiveness from our king, who came to suffer and die for us.

Posted in church, future

The future of the church

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

You have no doubt heard someone at church say, “We must have a strong children’s and youth ministry.” Why? “They are the future of the church!” Many hours are spent discussing how to attract younger families with children. A United Methodist congregation in Grove Cottage, Minnesota decided to shut down one of its campuses and relaunch that church to reach a younger demographic. Part of that process included asking the current members, most of whom were older, to attend another church for twelve to eighteen months. The approach and the reaction made national news.

The many different sides of that story does prompt the question, “Who is the future of the church?” I think it depends on the context. While children and youth may be the future of the Church, they are probably not the future of our church. You see, they grow up, go to college and move to where they find employment. We pray that they will be a part of the Church at large, but they will not grow up to be a part of our congregation.

Many of the people moving to Florida and our community are older. They are retired. They are tired of northern winters. And they are the future of our church. They are the new members, leaders, voices and teachers in our congregation. Yes, there are young families who move to our area, too. It’s an affordable place to live. But they are not necessarily the majority of the folks who come to visit and join our churches. That’s just the way it is here.

That is not necessarily a negative thing. In the pages of scripture, we find God staking the future of the church on a variety of people of different ages. Abraham was 75 when he got the call to move. Samuel grew up in the church. Moses was 80 when he was told to go to Pharaoh. David was a young shepherd when anointed the king of Israel. Josiah ascended to the throne when he was eight years old. Jeremiah had a job before he was born! Noah was 500 years old when he built the ark.

I love the babies, children and youth of the church. Yes, I am in my element when holding the infants, playing with the toddlers, teaching the middle schoolers, serving alongside the high school youth and praying the graduates off to college or the military. But I am also grateful for those who come with a lifetime of managerial, financial, educational and musical experience that fund, lead and drive the ministry of the church.

It’s ironic that some churches with a strong youth emphasis shuffle their young off to nursery and children’s church. It’s also ironic that those who want young families in church get irritated when the little ones get squirmy, noisy and leave Cheerio crumbs in the pew. Don’t you know how Jesus responded when the disciples tried to keep the kids away?

The future of the church will always be the gathering of people who need to hear the gospel, receive God’s forgiveness and be equipped to take that blessing back to their world. There are no age, height, income or experience restrictions on that experience.

Actually, the future of the church is “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-11).

Posted in church

A new, modern church

Daytona Beach First Baptist Church

I attended a required Child Evangelism Fellowship workshop today so that I could continue working with the Good News Club at a local elementary school. The workshop was held at the new campus of First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach, which recently moved from its historic location closer to the heart of the city. I looked forward to seeing their new site.

On the way there, I missed the turn into the church entrance. After I turned around, I turned into a mile long drive into a gorgeous acreage with the two new church buildings. A friend of mine commented, “That drive must have cost at least a million dollars.” I believe he was on target.

But as I pulled into a parking space, I was underwhelmed by two very understated buildings. I felt like I had pulled into an industrial park rather than a church complex. OK, take a breath. Just walk in and see what they have done here.

I walked into a space that was designed to be a coffee shop, restaurant and gathering area. It was very nice, and I quickly recognized others from my Good News Club. We sat together with coffee and bagels and caught up since our last time together.

The opening session was in the adjacent building, the main worship space. I tried to keep an open mind, but to tell you the truth, it felt like a warehouse rather than a church. The audio/visual technology was spectacular, but with a back wall of garage doors, exposed ventilation ducts and exposed walls, I did not feel like I had stepped into a church. I know that this design was intentional, but wow, what a difference from what this church used to be. Our breakout sessions were in very nicely appointed classrooms with very homey appointments.

So many thoughts went through my mind. Is this what a church looks like in the 21st century? Am I old enough to feel uncomfortable in a contemporary church? Is this what Jesus had in mind?

Jesus never went to church. What would he have to say about our churches? I am so glad he is merciful and abounding in love!

The dais, screen and stage
Posted in blood, church

Blood on the keyboard

It was just about time for the service to begin. As worshipers filed in and found their seats, the organist slid onto the organ bench and punched a few stops. As her fingers hovered over the keys, she suddenly recoiled and let loose a glass-shattering, ear-piercing shriek, banshee-esque, “There’s blood on the keyboard!”

First the room was silent, then abuzz as ushers and choir members rushed over to see the blood-spattered keys. One faint-hearted alto fainted in a crumpled heap. As the organist leapt from the bench, phones appeared to take photos and dial 911. As anthem music flew everywhere from the music loft, the pastor had a feeling the service wouldn’t begin on time…

Alas, most of the above never actually happened. The only fact is the blood! One of our organists played with a cut on a finger that began to bleed. Unwilling to cut the piece short, “blood on the keyboard” became a part of our church’s lore and might just be the title of a future novel.

Posted in church, Grace

They just show up

I’ve been visiting a lot of families who have just recently begun worshiping with us. It’s one of those seasons in our community when a lot of houses are being built, a lot of people are moving to the area, and some of them set out to find or just happen across our congregation. I do not fully understand why this is happening at this moment. I will not be able to write a book about how to grow your church this way. I can only stand back in amazement and realize, “This is what grace looks like.”

  • One family just happened to see us on Google maps. There were getting directions to someplace and saw our church on the map. He said, “Hey, do you now there’s a Lutheran church just up the road from us.” She said, “Let’s try it out.” They experienced the tradition they had grown up with in our worship. They’ll be joining our congregation.
  • Another had been listening to podcasts about Lutheranism and had become adept at finding churches in the area. They showed up, worshiped with us, and sent me an email thanking me for preaching the gospel. They may or may not join, but they’ve been back a number of times.
  • The week before last a man told me, “I live just around the corner. God told me I should check you out.” I don’t know what that means. I do not know how God did that. But I enjoyed meeting this worshiper.
  • I recently spoke with another really nice couple who were looking for some compromise between their previous Roman Catholic-Baptist-Brethren-Methodist-Presbyterian experiences. They found us to be a good fit.

You know the old adage, “God works in mysterious ways”? He does. Without a clear vision, strategy, formula, program or method, we seem to be growing. Our secret: we gather weekly around Word and Sacrament. That’s the only thing we do on a regular basis. What can I tell you? God does the rest!

Posted in church

There’s no coffee.

As I finished up the first worship service last Sunday and walked out the front door, I was greeted by a great friend of mine who said in a subdued voice, “We’ve got a little problem.” Usually, if someone says we have a big problem, I don’t worry about it too much. Such situations are generally blown out of proportion. Conversely, if you tell me we have a little problem, you’ve got my attention.

“We’ve got a little problem. There’s no power in the kitchen. So there’s no coffee.” What? This is serious. Everyone know that’s one of the signs of the apocalypse. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. How in the world are we supposed to do Sunday morning without coffee?

We did just fine, but it made me wonder, “Why do we have coffee on Sunday morning?” When did that tradition begin? Who first had that idea to serve coffee on a Sunday in conjunction with gathering for worship?

I’m straining to remember what it was like in the church where I grew up. I don’t know if they always had coffee, but I do remember our youth group sponsoring a coffee 1/2our from time to time to raise money. My mom drank a lot of coffee, so maybe it was even her idea. I didn’t drink much coffee as a young adult, so I can’t remember if it was available at my church in New Jersey. At my first call in Connecticut, I remember sometimes having to unplug the pot Monday morning. I don’t know if we ever got that on-all-night-burned-to-the-bottom taste out of the pot. We also all tried bringing our own mugs so we didn’t use as many styrofoam cups. In Iowa, the elder on duty prepared and plugged in several giant coffee pots. Try as they might, they just couldn’t get that duty removed from their job description.

I think we’ve had coffee on Sunday mornings most of the twenty-two years I’ve been at my church in Florida. Some of it was pretty good. Some of it was horrid. Every volunteer barista had their own recipe. Some used a whole one pound can to make a forty-two cup pot. Others would only use a cup. Some thought it frugal to use the grounds someone had left in from the previous Sunday. From time to time, someone would forget to put coffee in at all. The water still came out brown, it just didn’t have any taste.

Since I’m still preaching full time, I don’t get to visit many churches. But I’ll bet you won’t find many worship gatherings without available coffee. Trying to discontinue the custom can be dangerous, as described in this article. If it gets people to slow down and talk to each other rather than sprinting to their cars to see who can be the first one out of the parking lot, I guess it’s a good thing for the church.

Posted in church, Connecticut, Ministry


My son turns thirty-three next week. What do I remember about being thirty-three?

Wow, it’s a stretch. That was 1990. We were living in Connecticut, where I had received my first call as pastor of a small rural church, Prince of Peace, in Coventry, about an hour east of Hartford. Our kids, four and three, were attending the preschool. We had two labs, Gabriel and Rachel, yellow and chocolate, respectively. A big parsonage, probably 3,000 sq. ft. on four acres of land next door to the church. No AC. Only really got hot about 2 weeks each summer. I’m sure my wife had started her nursing classes at UConn by then.

The world wide web was brand new in 1990. No internet for us. No cell phones. No cable TV. We got all our news from TV and the Hartford Courant. Other than the bible, I only had a books I accumulated at seminary for my sermon and bible class preparation. What a contrast with the almost infinite resources available to me now!

I had a computer that I used for word processing, with a 5-1/4″ floppy drive, that I got from my brother, I think. I had a dot matrix printer, too. The church had a stencil duplicator to make weekly worship folders and monthly newsletters. We didn’t have to make too many though. About seventy gathered for worship each week.

I remember getting up very early on a Sunday morning and walking across the yard to the church, where I would practice my sermon a number of times. I would then come back home to help get everyone ready for church at 9:00, followed by bible class and Sunday School at 10:30. I think I taught a midweek bible class, too, but I can’t remember.

It was a very stable community. Not too many people moved to Coventry. Occasional visitors at church. New families joined from time to time. I still remember many of the families who welcomed us and helped me learn how to be a pastor those first few years: Jeram, Sans, Thurber, Garay, Dollock, Ausberger, Hamernik.

I still did quite a bit of running back then, but didn’t race much. I remember hitting softballs out into the yard for the labs to chase. I always wore out before they did. We let them run wherever. When I whistled in the evening, you could see them coming through the field from a half mile away. We had two cats for a while, Fred and Ginger, who also spent a lot of time outside. I’d yell, “Kittykittykittykittykittykitty” and they would come scrambling in from a tree.

We burned a lot of wood in a wood burning stove in the winter. I’d get people to bring over parts of fallen oak trees, and I would split and stack it in the summer time. I absolutely loved swinging the axe through those logs.

The kids and I would often walk down the road where a very small farm had goats and horses near the fence that we could pet. A short drive would bring us to the UConn barns, where we would walk through and visit cows, goats, sheep and horses.

I don’t know if I have any journals from back then. I have to rummage through the box of notebooks I have at church. I don’t even remember if or how much I was journaling at that time. Not as much as I do now. The memories are mostly in my head and in our photographs. But if I find some, I’ll let you know.