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.

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!

“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.

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!

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.

What happened on Saturday?

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!

Kids

christiana-rivers-217056

Photo by Christiana Rivers on Unsplash

I never, ever get tired of reading or hearing the story of when people wanted to bring their kids to Jesus and the disciples tried to stop them (Mark 10:13-16). I can just hear the disciples saying, “Get those kids out of here.” And then Jesus says, “Don’t you dare send those kids away. Let them come to me. That’s what this is all about!”

This account resonates on a number of levels. First of all, I think that deep down, we just all want to be kids. We want to be free of all the responsibilities of being adults, to just play and imagine and color. And that’s OK. You get a much better handle on Jesus when you are a kid. You’re not trying to prove yourself or justify yourself. You just look at him with wonder and know that he’s not like any grown up you’ve ever met before. He wants you to hang around, not just go off and play (and be quiet).

I also believe we want to feel his embrace. After Jesus rebuked his disciples and told them to let the children come to him, he took them in his arms and blessed them. With all the uncertainty, violence, politics, prejudice, hatred, jealousy and evil in our world, we just want someone to hold us. We long for someone who can make us feel safe. Who better than Jesus, who loves without boundaries, who provides a refuge from everything that threatens, whose arms can reach and embrace anyone, no matter the distance?

Don’t ever grow up so much that you no longer yearn for the feel of his arms around you. Always embrace your inner child, for that is one of the places where you will best get to know your Savior!

 

 

Keep your stuff. Please.

0006294200035_00It must have been the creaking sound that got my attention. What is that noise? It seemed to be coming from the freezer in the church kitchen. Freezers don’t usually make a lot of noise. Unless someone is trapped in there. Overly cautious, I slowly opened the door and peeked inside.

Perched on the top shelf is a three-gallon bucket of maple walnut ice cream with no lid. It was surrounded by several bags of ice that had been permanently joined together in a moment of melting. Their combined weight strained the top shelf like a bar on the back of a weightlifter squatting who-knows-how-many pounds.squat

But that’s not all. On the shelves beneath were ancient hot dog buns, vintage popsicles, and something orange left over from what I am sure was a fabulous supper. Nice. By the grace of God, it was all disposed of before the health department caught wind of the situation.

There is, as everyone knows, an unwritten rule that anything you don’t want or need — animal, vegetable or mineral — may be dropped off at the church. Common items include books (including many, many bibles), old computers, printers and monitors (working or non-working), TVs, walkers, crutches and commodes, out-dated food, pianos and electric keyboards, broken toys and dried up pens and markers.

To this collection we add other items unintentionally left at church: umbrellas, jewelry, keys (how did you drive home?), clothing (did you go home naked?), water bottles, sweaters and sweatshirts, and every imaginable variety of Tupperware.

I appreciate you thinking of us. But I need to tell you: we just reduced the size of our dumpster. So we don’t have the same disposal capacity we used to. I apologize for the inconvenience, but you might just have to put your stuff out on the curb yourself.

 

Denied.

peter-miranda-21643

Photo by Peter Miranda on Unsplash

I just started reading the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, and I think I had forgotten how harsh that prophetic message is. By the end of the second chapter God is basically saying, “Don’t come to me for help. Go to all those gods you’ve been worshiping” (Jeremiah 2:28).

So I began to wonder, at what point could I turn someone away who has been away from the church for a long, long time, but comes back for some a la carte spiritual food? Like someone who you haven’t heard from in about fifteen years who calls up one day and says, “Can I get my kids baptized this Sunday?” Or another who stops by the church now and again and sends an email asking me to do their wedding eighteen months from now. I denied both requests.

Of course I felt guilty. How could I not, seeing as how Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son being welcomed home? And there have been families who have been away for a while who have recently reconnected with the church. And I had no problem with them.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” I always thought Uncle Ben said that to Peter Parker (Spiderman). Actually, it is attributed to Voltaire. Anyway, it applies here. Jesus gives the church the authority to forgive or not, to loose or bind people in their sin.

But how do you know whether to apply mercy or accountability in a given situation? The catechism says you forgive the sins of the repentant. But how do you know if someone is repentant?

The bottom line is, you don’t. You can talk to someone and try to understand their story. You could look for the fruits of repentance. But in the end, you really don’t know. I tend to lean towards compassion, but in the two examples above, I just couldn’t do it.

Sometimes Jesus said, “I don’t condemn you.” Other times he said, “You’re already condemned” (John 3:18). Jesus didn’t like it when the Pharisees shut heaven’s door in people’s faces. Yet he also warned against giving pearls to the pigs.

But Jesus was better at sorting things out. He’s really good at reading hearts and minds.

And he’s great at keeping me on task. I’m not supposed to be a religious sub-contractor, providing various services. I’m just the messenger.