Posted in Grace

Street corner violinist

As I left Starbucks this afternoon, I heard accompanied violin music. A man was playing some new age-ish much on the corner of the driveway. I stopped to listen, and then stepped in to take a picture.

As I did, a man stepped up to talk to me. I remember seeing him inside Starbucks. He had an earbud and an ugly polo shirt. He said, “Did you take a picture of that guy?”

I admitted, “Yes.”

He said, “I’ve been watching him for two days. He’s been out here every day. I figure he’s making $30 an hour. He’s not homeless. Just out there taking advantage of people.”

I said, “Oh. I didn’t know.”

Honestly, I was going to put a few dollars in his box. Just like I would do for anyone busking. Just like I hope someone would do for me one day when I am playing my guitar somewhere.

I got in my truck and drove away. But I thought, “Can’t I throw a few bucks to a musician on a street corner without feeling guilty?” So what if he’s not homeless? He’s pretty good. He might play a request. He might have a family. At least he is doing something.

Posted in Grace

“You’re mic is on!”

Photo by Lee Soo hyun on Unsplash

It’s four minutes before I walk towards the altar, the prelude comes to a close and worship begins. More than a few times, someone has come up to me and said, “Your mic’s on!”

Well, of course it is. I fully trust the person at the sound board to pot me up at the appropriate times in the service. If the whole congregation can hear my small talk with those arriving for worship, those I’ve spotted who are with us for the first time, and those who have last minute questions for me, it’s not my fault!

I usually think, “I hope it wasn’t on when I was just in the bathroom.” Or expressing frustration under my breath about someone or something. Or speaking having a confidential conversation.

Actually, most of the time, it’s not true. My voice tends to carry. That’s a polite way of saying I’m just plain loud. I’ve heard it many times from my wife when guests are sleeping on the other side of the house or my comments are of a personal nature. I don’t even realize how much volume I can generate. It must come from all those years of playing the trumpet and sending air through the horn.

Can you imagine what it would be like if people could hear what you were thinking? So many thoughts resonate in my head that fortunately never make it to my vocal chords. About someone’s appearance, behavior, language, priorities, commitment, faith, choices or lifestyle. If that mic were ever left on I would be in a lot of trouble!

It’s troubling to sit here and write about thoughts I am glad no one knows I have. Obviously I am not proud of them, nor do I share them very often. Such thoughts reveal a level of sinfulness I shudder to admit. My thoughts aren’t always nice, constructive, merciful, forgiving and gracious. They are too often judgmental, condescending, cruel, hateful and evil.

No one knows. Except for God. And when I stop to ponder that, I am ashamed and humbled. But he still sent Jesus to atone for those thoughts. Amazing.

Posted in Grace

Forgiveness is a must

Photo by Gianandrea Villa on Unsplash

“Is it ever OK for a Christian to not forgive?” In a word: no.

I wasn’t present, but I know the question came up recently in a bible class. More than a few folks argued that there are just some offenses and sins that couldn’t and shouldn’t be forgiven.

Scripture is clear: Christians forgive. We forgive because we have been forgiven. When Peter asked Jesus if there was a cap on forgiveness, Jesus said, “No.” Peter asked, “How many times do I forgive someone? Seven times?” Jesus replied, “Seventy-seven times.” In other words you always forgive.

Jesus then tells a story that illustrates his point in Matthew 18:23-35. God’s forgiveness is so extravagant that we must forgive the comparatively small things others say or do against us. His instruction to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” expresses the same directive. Our mandate is to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). He sets the example; we follow suit.

No one ever said it was easy. Forgiveness is hard. God doesn’t just look the other way or say, “Forget about it.” His declaration of the forgiveness only happens because Jesus was crucified, paying for our sins with his life. In fact, Jesus paid for all sins by his innocent suffering and death.

“But what if they don’t repent?” “What if they aren’t sorry?” Neither changes the call to forgive. Forgiveness is one-sided. You let it go. You don’t hold it over someone’s head. You don’t seek retribution. You do not make them pay for what they have done.

Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting, though. It does, however, give us a different way of remembering without resentment or bitterness. Forgiveness makes it possible to see the one who hurt us through the lens of the cross, which always brings Christ’s compassion and mercy into view.

However, forgiveness may or may not lead to reconciliation. Forgiveness is one-sided. You can intentionally forgive in your heart all on your own. Reconciliation, however, takes two. It requires two people to work to heal a broken relationship. Reconciliation may take a long, long time. Though pursued, it may never happen. You may never get along with someone, even though you have forgiven them.

What about Jesus’ words to his disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23)? The church pairs these words with Jesus’ teaching about what to do when a “brother sins against you” (Matthew 18:15-20). Much responsibility is given to the church to hold its members accountable for their actions and proclaim God’s forgiveness. In other words, the preaching of Law and Gospel is serious business! Just remember, you are not the church. You are simply a child of God, forgiven and free from your sins. “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8 NIV).

Posted in Grace

Just take a walk

I don’t get to see many fall colors on trees in Florida, so this one just kind of jumped out at me when I was walking Sam. The palm trees and the pine trees keep their green year round. But this tree’s a trifecta. I’ve never seen a tree like this one with three vivid colors simultaneously on display. I wish I knew what this was. I’d get one for my yard!

It is so easy to miss the creative work of God that frames my walks around the neighborhood. I stroll through a museum of his handiwork many times each week. Green lawns, flowering shrubs, towering trees, familiar neighbors walking their dogs, storm clouds off in the distance, the vivid clouds of the sunset, the first few stars in the evening sky – all testimonies of the God who created heaven and earth – and me.

So grace can look like a tree covered in color, making me stop and look and take a picture. You want to catch a glimpse of grace? Just go for a walk.

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 Grace

“What is grace?”

Busted. A student in my confirmation gently raised her hand and asked, “What’s grace?”

I toss that word around like it were obvious to everyone. Guess what? It’s not.

  • “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
  • “Stephen, full of grace and power” (Acts 6:8).
  • “We are justified by his grace as a gift” (Romans 3:24).
  • “Grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).
  • “You are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).
  • “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you” (1 Cor. 16:23).
  • “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor., 12:9).
  • “By grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5).

I could go on and on and on. All those verses roll off my tongue like lyrics for a top forty song. My point is, if you’re a Christian and you like to toss around the word “grace,” you better have your elevator definition ready for anyone who asks you, “What is grace?”

My simple answer: when you get what you don’t deserve. A good grade when you really didn’t study all that hard. A close parking spot on a busy shopping day. Another chance to get it right. Forgiveness. Oh, yes, especially forgiveness. No one deserves that. But someone paid dearly so you could have it.

Posted in Grace, pastor

How about some grace?

So, if I weren’t a pastor and I went to a church somewhere, what would I expect of the pastor?

I think that’s a heck of a question, one worth asking from time to time when I wonder where my time went. Am I doing more than I need to do? If so, then why? How much time am I spending on unimportant tasks? Why am I doing that?

OK, here is my list. Yours may be different, but that’s OK.

I would expect the pastor to proclaim God’s Word to me. Preach the word. What is God saying to us through his word right now? I expect that the pastor has studied and prepared some good news for the congregation from scripture.

I would want the pastor to be a regular person. Wife, kids, hobbies, joys and frustrations. If I stop by his house, it’s not perfectly kept. If he comes to my house, he’s right at home.

I would want the pastor to baptize, marry, and bury those whom I love. In those very special, emotional moments, please remind me that God is a part of those moments, too.

I would want the pastor to project grace. I don’t need someone to tell me what to do or how to do it. I already have plenty of people in my life who do that. But grace is hard to find. Maybe the pastor can bring it.

That doesn’t sound too tough, does it? Yet, when you are the pastor, you feel like everyone expects a whole lot more from you. You feel like everyone is expecting you to

  • make the church grow
  • keep the kids engaged
  • attend any and every meeting
  • bless things (crocheted prayer shawls, bibles, necklaces, urns, bricks, cross necklaces…whatever)
  • keep the church sanctuary at a comfortable temperature
  • go after those people who don’t even want to be a part of the church
  • make people behave better
  • tell people how they ought to vote at election time
  • visit people in the hospital who didn’t tell you they were in the hospital because they thought somehow you knew
  • perform a funeral for someone who never came to church but was a pretty good person most of the time
  • conduct a wedding for a couple from out of town who wanted to be married on the beach because you live at the beach
  • remember who can’t drink wine, eat gluten, or likes to drink from the common cup

I don’t know if everyone really expects those things. It’s just that I think people expect those things. We should be able to reach a compromise here. If you expect grace and I expect grace then I can let go of many expectations and simply give you the best gift of all. Grace!

Posted in children, Grace, mercy

Total meltdown

gem-lauris-rk-606993-unsplash“Ok, two minutes.”

That’s all I said. That’s all it took. Suddenly, my grandson fell to the ground, let loose a long, agonizing wail, and would not accept the truth that we were leaving the fast food restaurant play ground in two minutes.

This caught me off guard. A two-minute warning was usually well received. I had never seen such a reaction. I know he was just getting over a cold and wasn’t 100% yet, but this was over the top.

Later, I wondered — what makes me melt down like that? We all have our moments. Most of the time we are well-behaved, composed, and in control. But all it takes is one look, one comment, one request, and we can lose it, too. We may not scream, but we’ll certainly feel like it.

I did a little soul-searching and came up with the one thing that makes me melt down, at least on the inside. (When you are an adult, you learn how to stuff your feelings and make everyone think you’re doing just fine.) It’s when someone asks me to do just one more thing that I don’t consider to be part of my job description, but is a request that makes perfect sense to them.

I know, I have to explain. Here’s a good example. Someone who has no connection with the church whatsoever calls to ask me to perform a religious service for them, like a wedding or a funeral or a baptism. Or someone is concerned about their adult child who has never really shown much interest in the church, but perhaps I talk some sense into them because they are making bad decisions. Here’s another — someone has a great idea for ministry that they think I should implement. Will they help? Not a chance.

Those are just some of the moments when I just want to say, “I’ll be back in a minute,” so I can go outside and just scream at the top of my lungs. I don’t often do that. But I sometimes feel like doing that. In fact, if we’re talking and I step out for a minute, you can be pretty sure that’s exactly what I’m doing.

So I really wasn’t too upset when my grandson lost it. I thought, “I know; I feel your pain.” I’ve been in meltdown mode before. I’ll be there again. I’m thankful that I have a heavenly Father who’s willing to take me by the hand, walk me out of there, and give me a chance to pull myself together. I think there’s a lot of kicking and screaming in the kingdom of God. But he loves me anyway.

Posted in faith, Grace, Life, waiting

What happened on Saturday?

Photo by Nicole Harrington on Unsplash

Holy Saturday. For we pastors who run the entire Holy Week race, we’re coming out of the final turn on the way to Easter morning. The week has been filled with extra worship services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and a few visits to some homebound members who won’t be in worship tomorrow, perennially the biggest Sunday of the year. What do pastor’s do on that in-between day?

For me, it’s pretty relaxing. I didn’t have to get up as early as I usually do. I did a little sermon review for Sunday. Then I oiled up the valves and blew a few notes through my trumpet, just staying limber for tomorrow’s hymns. I exercised, did some grocery shopping, bought a new tie for tomorrow, got into the Easter candy, and may still take a nap this afternoon. All in all, a pretty nice day.

What happened on that Saturday before Jesus’ resurrection? Not much. It’s the Sabbath, so it’s a day away from the regular routines of work. The reality of Jesus’ death is beginning to hit those who knew and loved him. Thoughts of having to get up early to finish taking care of his corpse were on the minds of some. Fear haunted those in hiding; “Now what are we going to do?” The Roman soldiers had to work, guarding the tomb.

The one thing that we do not see on that Saturday is any kind of celebration from Satan and his demons. Why not? The Christ is dead. This should be their moment. They can run amok  unhindered through creation and mankind. They’ve won. They should be celebrating. They should be planning the parade.

But they’re not. Maybe they knew. Maybe they knew that this pause in the story isn’t a good thing. When Jesus said he’d rise, the disciples didn’t get it. Maybe the demons did. From the beginning they knew who he was. And they knew they didn’t have a chance.

In a sense, much of life is Saturday. We’re waiting for resurrection, for the return of Christ. For some, it’s relaxing. Others have to work. Some are afraid. Many hope it comes soon. We’ll get a taste of it tomorrow, in word and sacrament and song, and be reminded that death doesn’t have a chance!