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.

Pigeons!

My children’s sermon this morning came from the gospel, the account of Joseph and Mary coming to the temple with Jesus for their purification, where they met Simeon and Anna. Hmm. What would the kids connect with? I know – pigeons! The ancient law of Moses prescribed bringing two turtledoves or pigeons as an offering. I’ll just get a couple of pigeons. OK, not real ones, but a couple of cool stuffed ones.

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I was blessed to have my granddaughter Eden present in worship today to see the pigeons!

It was a hit. I know, because they wanted to take them home. Thank goodness we don’t have to bring pigeons anymore. Joseph and Mary brought a better sacrifice, the sacrifice, the Savior to the temple that day.

I had the pigeons out on the pulpit for the service. They’ll nest in my office until the next time I need them, a powerful reminder of God’s grace!

Christmas cantata night

24174602_504441229935324_2031369082892135469_nTonight was Christmas cantata night at church. For the last fifteen years (it might be more or less, I really don’t know!) our church choir and a variety of other singers, actors and artists have prepared a special presentation of Christmas music and readings as a part of our Advent midweek worship services. It started with lessons and carols, progressed to a published choir cantata, grew up into a full-scale dramatic and musical presentation, and has pulled back to a more relaxed event the past few years.

Our church is blessed with lots of musical talent, including directors, voices, soloists, and instrumentalists. Of course, we are also blessed with the compelling story of Christ’s birth, one that has been set to many different musical forms. It’s a great night that has become a great outreach event for our congregation as they invite family and friends to come and see what we’ve prepared.

I wasn’t as involved as much this year as I have been in the past. I’ve been in the choir, sang solos, played guitar, acted and narrated. But this year I simply read an adaptation of an archbishop’s Christmas sermon from “Murder in the Cathedral” by T. S. Eliot. My scaled-back part let me focus on a few other tasks these past few months. Youth read scripture, the choir sang a number of pieces, and one solo rounded out the program.

I got to meet a lot of folks I didn’t know, guests of our members. I got to talk to others that I only see at this event each year. Plus I got to watch and listen to the presentation since I didn’t have to remember my lines and pay attention to my cues.

I knew most of the songs and I had been there for the rehearsals, so none of it was new to me. I have to remind myself that many are hearing it all for the first time. Many haven’t heard, read, preached, sang, and acted out the story of Christ’s birth. What would it be like to hear it and reflect upon it for the very first time. What questions would you have? What would touch your heart? It’s good to ask myself that question often anyway, so that I rediscover the impact of God’s word.

The choir really did great tonight. It helped that we overcame some challenges with the sound system and got their monitors working well. The fellowship afterwards was great. So many stayed, talked and got to know each other. Maybe that is part of why this is a popular and important event. People want to connect, they want to hear some good news, and they hunger for more than what the secular celebration of Christmas has to offer.

With just a week or two to catch our breath, we’ll be doing it again, getting ready for the Good Friday cantata. It’s a lot of work, but it’s energy well invested, and a blessing to so many!

The very first time

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Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

I have no idea how much courage it takes to walk into a church for the first time, uninvited, curious, knowing no one, not knowing what to expect, wondering how I’ll be treated and hoping that I don’t make a fool of myself.

I haven’t done that for a long, long time. I think the last time was 1982 when I had just moved to Austin, TX, found the nearest Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod congregation, and showed up for worship at Christ Lutheran Church on the south side of the city. I am thankful for their gracious welcome and letting me be a part of their church life for the next 8 months.

I thought of this when a family I had never met before came to our evening midweek Advent worship last night. They found us on Facebook. Cool. We put a lot of stuff out there hoping that some of over two billion users will see it. They did, and they came. I was conscious of their presence all night. I may have been more nervous than they were. Going though my mind: Will the members step up and welcome them? Will my message speak to them? Will they find the service meaningful? Will they like me, our church, the experience?

All right, take a breath. This isn’t an audition. This is worship. We are responding to the presence of the Savior and his gifts of grace. The angels in heaven are rejoicing when one sinner repents, and that includes my moments. It is a privilege and a blessing to simply be a place where a family can find a moment of quiet, grace and joy in a busy, demanding and unforgiving world.

My prayer is that we welcome the people we meet for the first time as those whom our Lord has known since before they came to be. A friend of Jesus ought always be a friend of mine.

“What are you talking about?”

marcos-luiz-photograph-292698In the introduction to my sermon yesterday, I referred the HGTV show “Fixer Upper.” I knew that many in attendance were fans or had at least seen or heard of the show. Of course, you never hit the bull’s eye every time. There were some there who leaned over the person next to them asking, “What’s he talking about?”

It is so energizing to make a pop culture reference and watch as faces light up with familiarity. It is equally nauseating to see puzzled looks on faces who have no idea what you are referring to. It is humbling to either take the time to explain it, or discard what was a wonderfully powerful way to illustrate your point.

When you are speaking to an audience that ranges in age from two months to ninety-two years, with different experiences, tastes and interests, it is very hard to find that idea or image that everyone is familiar with. There are some who have never seen a Star Wars movie, don’t know anything about Jerry Seinfeld’s defective girlfriends, don’t read the newspaper, own flip phones, don’t Instagram, got a D in world history, only order wine by it’s color, and can’t name any of the Paw Patrol. I’m not saying that’s bad, I’m just saying you better remember that dynamic when you’re speaking.

So what’s a preacher to do? First of all, it helps to know your audience. When I preach, it is almost always to a congregation I know well. I know many of their interests, tastes, occupations, hobbies and families. I’ve been to their homes, talked over coffee, taught them in classes, and have a pretty good idea of what they are familiar with.

Second, you can’t just depend on one illustration or example. You need to throw out a bunch to catch the attention of pre-adolescents, young parents, millennial, baby-boomers and those of the greatest generation. It helps to hang out with and get to know people from all walks of life.

Finally, a lot of it is just trial and error. Thankfully, a swing and a miss one week can be redeemed the next, because Sunday and the next sermon comes around at least once every seven days. I got on base yesterday. We’ll see what happens next week.