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!

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.

Thirty-three

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.

Are you willing to disagree?

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

A few days ago, I wrote about a prayer breakfast I attended to support our local pregnancy center. At that breakfast, a man representing a local church had a moment to share a story before he closed the event with prayer. It’s worth sharing here.

He daily attended mass, and that morning, the homily was given by “the “liberal priest.” By liberal, he meant one who wasn’t as anti-abortion as this gentleman. The essence of the homily spoke about justice for women, whose lives had to be considered as well as the unborn.

The gentleman at our breakfast took issue with this and stayed to speak to the priest after mass. He took the priest to task, pointing out that the church had always done much for life, from building hospitals and nursing homes, to cooking and distributing food, to assisting in foster care and adoption, in ministering to the homeless, in seeking justice for those in prison, and providing hospice care for the dying. Such care was provided for both female and male alike. Protecting unborn life was the necessary starting place in caring for life, a task that continued through all stages of life and death.

The thing that impressed me about this the most is that the person who shared the story had no intention of leaving his church because of the comments made that day. He was not afraid to discuss the issues and if necessary, disagree, even with the priest. He wasn’t going anywhere. His devotion and commitment to God could weather a debate on the sanctity of life.

I found this incredibly refreshing. From my experience, members of the church quickly head for the door when they disagree with something they hear from the pulpit. They seek out a place where they can hear what they want to hear. And it doesn’t take much. It can be a single word they didn’t like. Or something they interpret as politically partisan. Or a point that hits a little too close to home and makes them feel guilty. Rather than discussing the issue or making their position known or simply asking some questions, they do not return.

This tendency makes me nervous in another way, too. It makes me wonder whether the church is more connected to me or to the Lord. While my time in the pulpit is finite, the Word of the Lord lasts forever. I certainly hope your devotion and commitment aren’t contingent on me. If so, we are both in a lot of trouble.

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.