Look who showed up at the resource center!

When I walked into the Resource Center today I ran right into our church’s youth group. Working the intake desk were Alexandra, Abby, Grace, Nooch, McKelvey and Michael. In the backroom, where staples were sorted, bagged and distributed were Adam and Addison, Jake and Nick, Anna and Cole, Tess and Mackinzie, and Joshua. They had already been trained by our coordinator, Trish, were supervised by youth leaders Rob and Liv, and were assisted by some great parents: Dina, Beth, and Kelly. (I hope I didn’t forget anyone — please forgive me if I did.)

resource ctr

Some of the shelves were on the verge of empty, but there was enough food to send everyone home with a good week’s worth of non-perishables and bread. In our little corner of the post-hurricane world, I know it meant a lot to the clients.

I had stopped by to take a few pictures and encourage them in their ministry. I am so proud of their efforts to serve the congregation and community. Youth in ministry is a much better moniker than youth ministry. They are not the future of our church. They are the church right now.

I wonder if they understand the impact of their efforts? I know them all and I don’t think any of them have ever come home from school to an empty pantry or refrigerator. They may have lamented, “There’s nothing to eat!” But not because there wasn’t any food — just no Doritos or Oreos. Some of them had just gotten power restored. Others had helped clean up debris from yards this past week. All brought joy, laughter, and youthful energy with them. And for that I am thankful. It’s contagious, not just for me, but for the parents and clients, too.

When I was ten, twelve, or sixteen, I didn’t have a grasp on how much need there is in this world. Sometimes you can see it; they are sitting by the side of the road. Sometimes you can’t; they are sitting next to you in school. They don’t let on that the free lunch they get is their only meal that day. Or that they are living with a grandparent.

On the other hand, they also don’t judge. If someone comes in for food, they just need some food. Period. No thoughts of, “Why don’t they get a job?” or “They don’t look that hungry.” Just an eagerness to share what they have with someone else.

I always learn a lot from young people. That’s why I like hanging around them.

The Resource Center in Bunnell (1510 Old Moody Blvd.) is open during the week as well as Saturdays, providing food for Flagler County residents. Call 386.437.7373 for more information. 

 

Be still

img_7401.jpgWe really like it when our Lord stills the storm. When the hurricane’s over and your house is still standing and the skies clear and the sun comes out, we’re ready to go. We’re ready for the power to come back on, stores to reopen, the kids head off to school, fill the car with gas and get back to work.

It doesn’t always work out that way. A day or two later and the power’s still out, cable isn’t back on, gas stations don’t have gas, stores aren’t open, schools are closed, and suddenly, the stillness becomes a nuisance rather than a blessing.

When you have no place you need to be, there’s nowhere to go, no TV, no lights, the world can be a very still place. God says, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), it’s as if he’s asking, “What’s your hurry?” Continue reading

All the signs are there

58054dca7ec3a.imageNo church today. Waiting for Hurricane Irma to traverse the Florida peninsula. Plenty of time to think and pray…

Of course you’re going to hear about it. You’ve thought about it, too. How could you not? All the pieces are there: a total eclipse, back-to-back hurricanes hitting the United States, a devastating earthquake in Mexico City, scorching wildfires in the west after record high temperatures and years of drought, hatred and violence in places like Charlottesville, VA and nuclear war just over the horizon. Science fiction writer John Scalzi tweeted, “These aren’t the End Times, but it sure as hell feels like the End Times are getting in a few dress rehearsals right about now” (1:20 pm Sept 8. 2017)

[Jesus said,] “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken” (Luke 21:25-26).

Just make sure you keep reading. “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). The coming of our Lord is good news for God’s people. We’ve been waiting for him, right? Continue reading

God’s whirlwind answer to Job’s profound questions

hurricane-irma-satellite-noaa-ht-jc-170905_12x5_992Sitting here, waiting for Hurricane Irma to traverse the length of Florida, I couldn’t help (because I’m a pastor) think of Job’s encounter with God in a whirlwind in the bible (Job 38:1).

Job had three really good questions for God while he was suffering from the loss of his family and health. His so-called friends tried to help him figure things out, but they weren’t much help.

Job asked, “Why was I even born? If I have to suffer this much, why didn’t I just die at birth?” (Job 3:11) Great question. If life includes suffering – and it usually does – then why even bother? I know from my own turning forty experience that if you hurt bad enough, you just want it to be over.

Second question: “How can you be in the right before God?” (Job 9:32) Job’s well-meaning friends offered him their best advice: “You must have really screwed up. Just turn back to God and get past this.” Job knew he hadn’t done anything to deserve what he had to go through. And how are you going to get in good standing with God anyway? He does what he wants. What chance do you even have to argue your case with God?

“If a man dies, will he live again?” (Job 14:14) Good question. If life is hard and too quickly comes to an end, what’s the use? Cut down a tree and it grow back. Terminate a life, and that’s it. Game over. No second chance. No redo.

God answers God from a whirlwind. (Was it a  hurricane? Or a tornado?) And he simply asks a series of questions. “Do you know how this world works, Job? Were you there at creation, at its inception? Do you even have a clue?”

So when the whirlwind comes, we remember that He is God and we are not. We can’t do much to control the weather. All we can do is flee or hide. Our vote doesn’t count. We just ride it out the best we can.

But we know why we were born. We were created for good works (Eph. 2:10). We’ll have plenty of chance to do that on Tuesday, when recovery begins and we can be there for our neighbors.

We can be right before God, but only by faith. “We maintain that a person is justified by faith” (Romans 3:28).

And, there is life beyond the grave. The Lord will come, the trumpet will sound, and the dead will rise (1 Thessalonians 4:16).

So let the hurricane remind you of our Lord’s power, grace and return. It’s one of the best object lessons ever!

What I remember about going to church while I was growing up

ChancelGreenI grew up in a family that went to church every Sunday. Period. I was never forced, nagged or bribed to go to church. We just went. It’s what we did as a family from the time we moved to Ridley Park until I left for college.

I realize some will think that cruel and unusual punishment. Others will applaud my parents for bringing us up that way. Whatever. It was a different time, a different place and a different culture.

I’m not writing this to condemn anyone. I just got to thinking, “What do I remember from church growing up?” I don’t remember anything about church before age 8, when we moved to Ridley Park from Bucks County. But a few things do linger in my memory. (Not many, but a few.) For the record: I grew up attending St. Mark’s Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Ridley Park, PA.

First, I don’t remember a single sermon my pastor ever preached. I don’t remember if he read his sermons or if he spoke extemporaneously. I don’t remember if he was fascinating or boring. All I remember is one phrase that I remember him using a number of times: “The rolley-coaster to hell.” I don’t know the context of that comment, but it sticks in my mind. I never want to be on that ride! Someday, I’m going to use that phrase.

Our family always sat in the same place each Sunday. Third row on the aisle on the left side. That was our family’s spot.

I remember a number of times when I sat to the left of my dad and to the right of a lady who smelled absolutely horrible. I mean days-old-garbage, a-whole-year-old-gym-sweat-socks, Pepe LePew, I’m-going-to-hurl malodorous. I had to bury my nose in my dad’s suit to survive. After that Sunday, I always tried to sit closer to the center aisle with my mom.

We used the same liturgy every Sunday for those eleven years. Lutherans will know what I mean when I say Red Hymnal page 5 (non-communion Sunday) and page 15 (communion). Knew it by heart. Didn’t ever have to glance at the hymnal for the liturgy. And no one ever complained.

There were no children’s sermons. In fact, children didn’t go with the parents to the communion rail. My mom and dad would go up for communion separately, taking turns watching us three kids. There was no way they were going to leave us alone for any length of time.

When I was old enough to acolyte, we acolytes would compete with each other to see who could light or extinguish the six candles the fastest, without hesitation. It’s harder than you think. One fraction of a second too quick, and you’ll have to cover the candle a second time to put it out, and you lose. Acolytes also weren’t allowed to look at the congregation. Ever.

We sang the same communion hymns every time we had communion. So we knew all them by heart, too.

I remember learning to sing parts in church. Each verse I would sing a different part, either soprano, alto, tenor or bass. The practice helped me in future auditions and music theory classes. I still sing a variety of parts to this day, along with a few favorite descants.

I remember some of the people. Mr. Scott was the organist. He was the best noodler I ever heard at the keyboard. He could transition between any key with God’s given style and grace. I remember Mr. Wagner, who sang a lot of tenor solos and was the Cubmaster of our pack. I remember Mr. and Mrs. Buss, who were good friends of our family and talented choir members. I remember Mr. and Mrs. May who had three boys about the same age as me. I remember the pastor’s wife, Mrs. Sallach, who had a beautiful, powerful, operatic soprano voice (ala Sandy Patti).

I remember my job as church janitor during high school. It didn’t pay much. Somehow my pastor convinced everyone they didn’t have to pay minimum wage because they were a church. But it was money. There were forty-four wooden pews in our church — we (I always had a janitor partner) dusted them every single Saturday with two Endust-infused Handiwipes. Our church had a preschool and kindergarten. I knew exactly where they kept the snack cookies, how to get into the closet where they were kept, and how many I could eat without anyone noticing. I learned how to gracefully use a string mop weekly, and annually strip and wax all the linoleum tile floors.

I remember that our church didn’t have air conditioning. We did have several large fans that could have gotten a B-17 off the ground that got us through the hot summer months.

It’s a good exercise for me to remember what I remember. It humbles me with the reality that what people remember about their church experience isn’t what I hope or expect. Someday, someone will write something about me and my ministry to them, and it will be quite amusing.

Through it all, I was weekly fed with God’s grace. When I got to the seminary years later, what they taught me sounded familiar. I had great catechetical instruction. After I got married and had a family, I never had to beg, coerce or bribe my kids to go to church. It was a part of the fabric of our family. And for that I am very thankful for the efforts and routine of my parents and my in-laws, who established that pattern in the hearts and souls of my wife and I.

Paths of grace: Humility (Luke 14:11)

Transcription of Sunday, September 3, 2017 sermon.

September 3 cover pic

In the gospel lesson today we heard Jesus say these words, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)

As we begin talking about this path of grace this morning, the path of humility, I want to assure you that I am not an expert on humility. I know that there are some people who would disagree with me. They say, “Well pastor you’re not like some of the other pastors we know. At their churches they have parking spots right by the front door for the pastor and for the pastor’s wife. You’re not like those pastors. You always park in the spot furthest away from the front door.” Y’all give me too much credit. The only reason I park way back there is because I don’t want anymore dings or scratches on my car. It has nothing to do with humility. In fact, I have a lot to learn about humility.

Jesus says those words in the middle of a very interesting occasion where he is at a meal with a ruler of the Pharisees. This is someone who is held in high regard by the religious community. When Jesus is there, they’re watching him carefully. They always want to catch him saying something or catch him doing something that will discredit him. But at the same time, Jesus is watching them. The way Luke describes it, he’s watching them choose the places of honor. So Jesus tells them this little parable. And he says, “When you’re invited to a wedding feast, don’t take the most important seat, the seat of honor at the head table. There might be somebody else there more important than you. You’re going to have to take the walk of shame when someone tells you to go sit at the end of the table. Instead, always sit in the lowest seat so that when the host sees you he’ll say, “You don’t sit down way back here. Come on up and sit near me. Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

This is not a new teaching. This is not something revolutionary from Jesus. These words were Solomon’s words of wisdom from Proverbs 25:

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence, or stand in the place of the great.  For it is better to be told “come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble. (Proverbs 25:6-7)

This is a biblical truth that’s been around for a long, long time.

Here’s the question I want us to think about this morning: Do we exalt ourselves? Do we jockey for the seats of honor? Do we presume to sit in better seats than other people? And if so, how do we do that?

We all do it. it’s something we all fall into. it shows up in a number of different ways.

Sometimes, it shows up whenever you think or talk about “those” people. For some reason we have the tendency to talk about “those” people that we don’t approve us, or they do things they shouldn’t be doing. As soon as you start thinking that way, you’re positioning yourself. You’re a little bit better than them.

Or it happens on those occasions when someone confronts you with something you’ve done wrong. Your first response is to talk about those who have done far worse things than you have. You’re doing the same thing. You’re positioning yourself over and above them. You’re better than them.

Or when they confront you, you turn it around. You say, “Well what about you? What about the things that you’ve done?” You’re doing the same thing.

Or those occasions when the conversation is all about you. You’ll ask someone, “How are you doing?” Before they have a chance to answer, you say, “it’s been a tough week, and I’ve had to do this at work, and my family’s driving me nuts” and on and on and they never get a chance to answer. It’s all about you.

These are the ways that even without thinking we tend to put ourselves in a better position than other people. We don’t even realize it. The path of humility is not one we would normally choose. We want to impress other people. We want them to think well of us. And sometimes we even try to impress God.

So let’s stop right there and make sure we all understand – you cannot impress God. It’s impossible. You know the bible verses.

You know Romans 3: None is righteous, no not one. Nobody lives the kind of life that would impress God

isaiah 64 — the best things that you do are nothing more than dirty rags. We are so corrupted by sin. Our sinfulness contaminates everything. Even on our best days, we don’t look any better than we did on our worst days. That’s what sin has done to us.

When Jesus said to a group of people, “Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone,” everyone drops their rock. Everybody knew they weren’t the one.

So we can’t do that. We’re never in a position to impress God with who we are or what we’ve done.

But here’s the good news this morning: you don’t have to impress God. You don’t have to impress him at all. God already knows about your failures, he knows about your sin and he knows exactly what your life is like As we humble ourselves and we confess our sins to God, and we say to him, “We don’t deserve anything but your punishment, Lord. Please, have mercy on us!” God does the same thing everything single time. He forgives us. He cleanses you from all unrighteousness and he lifts you up. When we humble ourselves, he lifts us up. We don’t have to lift ourselves up.

It’s the most amazing news ever, but something we always have to remind ourselves. We come together and we think we don’t even deserve to be at the table, and God invites us to sit with him in the skybox or on the fifty yard line as if we were his own family. That’s who we are to him. That’s important we are to him. That’s how valuable we are to him. We are his dearly loved children.

The path of humility is the path Jesus chose to take. Jesus had all the fullness of God in him. He could do anything — all powerful. Jesus knew everything. Everything of God is in Jesus. Yet the bible tells us Jesus didn’t choose to use that. He empties himself of his divine power on purpose. He humbled himself. He became a servant. He put himself under the law and the will of God, and became obedient even to the point of death on the cross.

The cross is the worst seat in the house, and that’s the path Jesus took. He allowed himself to be nailed to that cross and be the worst sinner ever. He takes the lowest place. The one who didn’t have any sin became sin for us, and died with our sins, so God could lift us up, and we can be the righteousness of God. Jesus didn’t show off or try to impress people with his divine powers. He gave it all up, to die for us.

That’s the path our Lord reveals us and the path our Lord calls us to follow. Following that path is a challenge, but it is not an impossibility. Following that path begins with a change in your attitude and the way you think.

it’s interesting how often your thoughts condemn other people and lift yourself up. it’s scary when I think how often in my mind I think less of people who are overweight and don’t exercise, or they can’t stop smoking, or they can’t keep their marriages together, or they can’t handle their children, or they can’t keep a job. What am I doing? I’m exalting at the expense of others.

The apostle Paul says in Romans 12:3 “Do not think of yourself of yourself more highly than you ought. I do it all the time.

instead, as Paul wrote in Philippians 2:3, we ought to consider others more important than us. God’s word is a very good mirror to show me what I’m like. And suddenly it reveals that when you look at someone else, you should see someone that God has created. They too are his workmanship (Eph. 2:10), created by him for good works and for a purpose. So we’re looking at someone who’s valuable. When you’re look at someone else, you are looking at someone for whom Christ died. They were important enough to him that he redeemed them. He purchased and won them from all sin, death and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death. When you look at someone else you ought to see someone who is a son or daughter of the king. That’s what he call them. They have the seats of honor and will reign in his kingdom.

So God’s word helps turn things around and helps us realize there’s a much better way to look at others.

It helps when we gather together for worship. This is the great equalizer right here. We all say the same words and confess our sins and the only plea we have is “Lord, be merciful.” And we all hear the same words of forgiveness. We all begin humbling ourselves and God lifts us up. We all start at the same place, at the baptismal font. There with water and his word our Lord washes us makes us his children. His death and resurrection now defines our lives, not what we’ve done, or what we can do, but what he has done for us. We come and kneel at the altar and we eat from the same loaf we drink from the same cup. The same gifts of grace for everyone of us.

Worship is the key to seeing others differently and having the right perspective and remembering that God lifts us up.

Just as gathering helps us keep that perspective, when we go to do his work, when we go for mission and ministry, that too helps our perspective.

Whether you are going on a mission trip with adults or the kids in the summer or down to the resource center, you think you’re going to help somebody who doesn’t have what you have. Once you do it, you realize they’re helping you. They’ve got things you don’t have.

Some of us have made the trip to Haiti to help, especially after the earthquake in 2010. Our minds said, as we packed up supplies and things to take with us, “We’re going to help these poor people. They hardly have anything.” They have two sets of clothes. They only eat a few meals a week. They don’t have much of a house to live in. They don’t have clean water or sanitary facilities.

Then we get there and we serve the people and realize they have things we don’t have. They have lives uncomplicated by schedules and pressures and the stress of having to do so much and always be on time. They’ve got time to spend with family and friends and have relationships. They don’t have a lot of things, but for them that’s freeing. They don’t have to worry about their stuff when a hurricane comes. They are free of that burden. They don’t have to worry about taking care of their car; it doesn’t run anyway. They are free. When they gather for worship their praise is unrestrained and joy pours out of them. They don’t to exalt themselves. They don’t have much, but they have a Savior. He lifts them up.

So it’s one of the ways God teaches us that we’re not up here and the rest of the world is down there. They have much to teach us. The psalm today taught us that the Lord instructs the humble in his ways. You want to learn something from the Lord? It’s going to happen on the path of humility.

God is very good at knocking me down a peg or two when I start to think a little too highly of myself. I get a little too confident, a little too confident and I say something stupid and I forget to do something important. I have to humble myself and I have to apologize. God always forgives me and gives me another chance.

That’s a good God who will do that for us. Who will never let us get carried away with ourselves and forget about him or the other people in our lives who are so important. Jesus’ words are a blessing: Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

The venue wedding

wedding-ceremony-treasury-on-the-plaza4

The Treasury on the Plaza, St. Augustine, FL

This post is a sequel to “Will you do my daughter’s wedding?” from August 26, 2017. I promised an update, so here goes…

After a few more email exchanges, I finally figured out what the bride had in mind. It wasn’t that she didn’t want the biblical side of things. She just didn’t want it to be so formal, which is fine at a venue wedding. She suggested a few scripture readings, which I had requested, and we were good to go. I performed the ceremony just a few hours ago, everything went well, and here are a few of my reflections.

It was worth it just to see how happy the couple was. I only met them briefly at last night’s rehearsal, but today, they were both smiling ear-to-ear. They were so excited to have reached this day.

The mother of the bride asked me to use a bible which her grandmother had given her mother at her wedding. They would pass it along to a fourth generation. I thought that was cool. I met the grandmother who had first received that bible today. Her nickname was Crunch. She was the fourth on her bowling team, so when it was her turn in the tenth frame of a close game, it was “crunch time,” and she usually came through.

The father of the bride was a bit uncomfortable about giving up his only daughter to this young man. I can relate. How do you let go of your little girl? It’s not easy. Who could ever live up to your expectations for your daughter’s husband? We hit it off well and had a great conversation.

The wedding planner, Brittney, was just one of so many coordinating the wedding. She had an assistant helping her. The venue had two or three coordinators. There was a sound person, a light person, a photographer with assistant, a videographer, and a few other miscellaneous people dressed in black with gold name badges who had jobs to do. That didn’t include the bartenders, wait staff, photo booth staff and footmen who would reset the room after the ceremony for the reception. It takes a lot of people to make a day like this happen!

I don’t have any pictures from the wedding yet. The new tradition is request that everyone put their phones away to focus on the ceremony. I’ll dig some up online though and add them later. This was one fancy place ($$$$).

And you know what? For the first time in about thirty years, I can honestly say that I am enjoying doing weddings. (What? I thought that was your least favorite thing to do!) I guess I’m getting old and sentimental. It gives me great joy and hope when two become one. I’ll write more about this another day…

 

Lessons learned when the church is in decline

graph-chart-down-downward-dip-plunge-recession-depressionFor years, the congregation I currently serve enjoyed relatively easy growth. The main reason was the explosive growth of our community. We were in the fastest growing county (percentage-wise) in the country. New homes being built everywhere, new families moving to town, new people seeking churches, Lutherans seeking Lutheran churches. With 3-4 visiting families at each and every worship service, the challenge was to keep up with follow-up phone calls and visits.

We added a third Sunday morning worship service. We began a Wednesday night education for youth and adults. We designed and built a new sanctuary. We had a vicar for three consecutive years. I learned a lot in those years as our modest congregation pretty much doubled in size. Continue reading

Unexpected, but welcome, guests at church

American_Ambulance_-_6357dfIt’s never a dull day in church when the EMTs show up!

It was a muggy summer day, inside and out. The air conditioning wasn’t at full capacity, so this preacher had worked up a sweat long before the sermon. I can see everything going on from my vantage point in the chancel. Nothing out of the ordinary until I saw some movement towards my left, in the front few pews. At first it looked like one of our youth leaning against her mom. But as a few nurses and elders made their way over, I could see that she had passed out.  Continue reading