Ministry tip #whatever: caffeinate before afternoon visits

I do my best creative work and writing in the mornings. For me, ideas and content flow effortlessly before noon.

My brain starts to get mushy after lunch, so that’s when I need to get out and do something else. So I use my afternoons are better for visiting folks at home, in the hospital, in nursing homes, for wherever.

There is a part of my brain, however, that suggests that I take a nap after lunch. Sometimes I do that. But I try not to do that when out for a visit. That’s where caffein comes in. In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m slamming a tall Pike before a visit to a homebound member.

You see, I’ve been visiting this person for a long time. After a certain number of monthly visits, I’ve heard most of the stories. However, I must listen to them again. And again. And again. That is when active listening becomes difficult, my eyelids begin to feel heavy, and I start to get very, very sleepy…

It’s embarrassing to do that little head jerk when a blink of an eye turns into a few seconds and suddenly your mind yanks you back into reality. To fend that off, I’ll try flexing my biceps and quads, squeezing the arm of the chair, and sitting forward, leaning in to listen more attentively.

Oope. I probably shouldn’t have revealed that. Some who read this may notice the tightening of my arm muscles or me leaning forward with my arms on my knees. You’ll see my hands clench on the chair and you’ll know I’m trying as hard as I can to stay awake.

Here’s the thing. Some of the folks I visit don’t often have someone to talk to. Even the married ones. So they have many things to say. Many things. And they have mastered the art of weaving their story together into one long, continuous sentence that is very hard to interrupt. Those who are good at this can go thirty minutes or more, as each part of their story reminds them of another person or another place that leads to other memories and details that connects to yet further events and recollections from the past.

I listen as best I can. I really do. Someday, I know the tables will be turned and I will be starving for someone to talk to, and I will keep my guest as long as I can by weaving together a complex tapestry of the story of my life to keep them there just a few more minutes.

Occasionally, I get caught with my eyes shut. Uh-oh. That’s embarrassing. It’s just a moment, but I got caught just the same. Graciously, my visit-ees usually say, “You look tired, pastor.” I guess you could make sure you have some coffee on when I come to visit. Just remember it’s got to be strong, black and hopefully not Maxwell House or Folgers.

So, for those who aspire to ministry that includes the care of souls, here my tip number whatever: caffeinate early and often.

I’m listening

Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash

Lately my prayers have been more listening than speaking.

Does that sentence surprise you? It surprises me. Most of the time I’ve spent learning about prayer and teaching about prayer focused on figuring out what to say, when to say it and how often to say it. But I’ve also always taught that prayer is a conversation with God. Which means you’ll listen as well as speak. You might even listen a lot more than you speak.

My devotional time is typically early morning. It’s nothing profound or fancy. I just read through the bible. Chapter by chapter. From Genesis through Revelation. Right now I am mostly through Mark. I read till something grabs my interest or I have a question or I gain some insight. I usually read just a chapter or two. I’ve actually started listening to the scriptures being read on an iPhone app (biblegateway.com) as I follow along.

I always used to think of this as study, which would be followed by some prayer. Then one morning I realized that this whole process was prayer. God was doing most of the talking. My response wasn’t nearly as much as he had to say, which is no doubt a good thing. I know he’ll listen and I know I can say anything, but it usually turns out better when my words are fewer than his.

Realizing this has been freeing and refreshing.

  • I never have to wonder what to say. All I need to add is, “Amen!” (Yes, he’s that good!)
  • Other times, his words become my response. He never minds if I use his words to form my prayers.
  • Sometimes I just ask a question. “What do you mean by that?” “What does that have to do with me?” “So what am I supposed to do?”
  • His words have a way of bringing to mind people I can pray for. Or a blessing I am thankful for. Or a problem that’s nagging me. Or a sin that’s haunting
  • And then there are those times when I say nothing at all. Grace will do that to you. Grace will silence your excuses, denials, explanations, blame and guilt. Grace is always the final word. All you can really say to grace is, “Thanks.”

So it turns out that even though it’s mostly listening, I’ve been doing more praying than ever.

Just a whisper

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Photo by London Scout on Unsplash

And [the Lord] said [to Elijah], “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

I have long been fascinated by this moment in the prophet Elijah’s life. He’s ready to give up and pack it in. He’s not just ready to retire. He wants to die. God’s says, “I want to talk to you. Climb up that mountain over there.”

Then, rather than manifesting himself in a tornado, earthquake or wildfire, God speaks in a low whisper. The literal words are a “thin silence.” So I’ve been wondering, would I rather hear God shout or whisper?

On the one hand, God’s powerful entrances are traumatic. When God finally shows up to answer Job’s questions, he speaks from a whirlwind (Job 38:1). Suddenly, Job doesn’t have any more questions (Job 40:5)! When the earth literally shook at the base of Mt. Sinai because of the presence of God, the entire nation backed away (Exodus 20:18). When the people were bemoaning their life in the desert, the fire of God began to consume the outskirts of their camp (Numbers 11:1).

On the other hand, the power of God is transformative and empowering. When the sound of a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire accompanied the arrival of God’s Spirit, the apostles suddenly became bible translators, preaching in the language of the international crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-4). When the early church prayed, the house shook as the Spirit gave them the boldness to keep speaking about Jesus (Acts 4:31). In the extra hot fiery furnace, Daniel’s three friends were joined by the Son of God rather than being consumed (Daniel 3:19-25).

When our children were still at home, there were moments when I would raise my voice and they (or my wife) would say, “Don’t yell!” So I would turn up the volume and reply, “I haven’t even started to yell yet!” That’s when they would put their hands over their ears.

Yes, there are times when God needs to get my attention. Turn up the volume a little. Even yell. Because I’m not really listening. I might even have my hands over my ears.

Yet there are other times when I’ll say, “What was that, God? Say that again. I’m having a hard time hearing you.”

If God is in whisper mode, you have to pay attention. Listening is hard. You have to stop talking, turn off your mind, get rid of distractions, and let the Scriptures speak. Read slowly, deliberately, without a goal or an agenda. Read out loud. Read it like it was the first time you’ve ever gazed at those words. Imagine you are there when the events happened, the words were first spoken, or when they were first heard. Don’t listen to respond. Listen to what He’s saying.

Though God reveals himself in many powerful ways, he chooses to reveal himself, his love, his grace, and our future through word. Words I understand, words I can remember, words I can repeat. If a whisper gets me to listen, all the better.

 

 

Always get a consult.

tomas-gal-434717They “did not ask counsel from the Lord” (Joshua 9:14).

That turned out to be a big mistake. The Gibeonites had heard of how Israel had won great victories at Jericho and Ai and were shaking in their boots. They needed a plan, and they came up with a good one. We’ll dress up in old clothes and pretend we came from some distant country. Hopefully they’ll have mercy on us,  and we’ll save our lives.

It worked. Joshua didn’t consult the Lord, but made treaty with them. Three days later they discovered that these guys were locals. Too bad, so sad. They had already made a treaty, and now had to put up with them.

Lesson learned? Always get a consult.

Easier said than done. After all, why bring God in on every little decision that has to be made? Come on, I wasn’t born yesterday, I‘ve been around the block a few times and I like to believe I’m smarter than the average bear. I’ll definitely call God in on the big stuff. But I can handle the rest, right?

On the other hand, how hard is it to ask, “What do you think, God?” He knows what’s going to happen down the road. He knows the truth behind the masks people wear. He’s not fooled by those who set out to scam you. And he cares about what happens to you. He’s always around, always listens, promises wisdom to those who ask, and looks beyond appearances to the heart and motivations of people. What do you have to lose?

So that has become one of my mantras. Always get a consult. When someone asks you to do something, or when you have to make a decision, when you don’t know what to do, or when you are absolutely certain you know the right course of action. Just ask, “What do you think, God?”

He may not say anything and let you decide. He may bring to mind some scripture that speaks to that. He may use someone else to guide you. He may close a door. He may show you another option you never thought of. Who knows? But at least you kept him in the loop. And he is definitely a good one to have in the loop.

But no matter what, always get a consult.

Just listen.

listenMy friend J. stopped by the other day to cancel a lunch appointment later in the week. He had to go out of town, so we’d get together some time in the future. He could have called, but he was out and around, so he came to the church to talk to me. And he did, for about fifteen minutes, about all kinds of things. Standing in the hallway, I just listened and nodded as he wandered seamlessly from topic to topic.

The last time I went to visit S., he was in a pretty good mood and shared with me his plan to regain enough strength and balance in his legs to leave the nursing home and move back home. After my initial greeting, I didn’t have to say much. He had mastered the art of speaking without periods. Every sentenced ended with a comma-like pause, and segued into the next thought, story, complaint or reflection. Sitting there, I just listened and nodded for about thirty minutes.

My visit to K. found her in good spirits even though she would not be going home. Case workers were searching for a suitable assisted living situation for her. She too had much to say about her family, friends, and possible future. Thirty minutes into the visit, I had only spoken two sentences as she chatted about everything and everyone.

S. topped by the church office with a question, which led to additional questions, apologies for having so much to say, and lengthy stories which never quite reached a conclusion. Twenty-five minutes of listening and nodding.

I believe these and many others are simply starved for someone to talk to. They are either alone most of the time or just don’t have anything left to say to those they live with and are famished for conversation. So I listen. And I tell myself over and over in my mind, “They need to talk. Just listen.”

With more and more ways to communicate, we actually talk to fewer and fewer people. Instead of calling to order a pizza, I use an app. I exercise with virtual people on DVDs. I reserve boarding dates for my dog via a popup chat box. I don’t know if there is a real person on the other end or not. I’ve gotten a rental car at a kiosk with a screen and a talking head, rather than from a person on the other side of a desk. I get texts instead of phone calls. A machine at the grocery store tells me what my blood pressure is.

I’m comfortable with all the technology and use it all the time. But my day is also peppered with phone and in-person conversations with people that I know well as well as those I’ve just met. But one day, if I don’t (or can’t) go out much, and have outlived some of the people I used to talk to, I’ll bet I’ll crave someone, anyone, to talk to, too.

So I’m paying it forward now. Go ahead and talk. I promise to listen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A spontaneous smile

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Yeah, these guys make me smile, too. Photo by Jennifer Pallian on Unsplash

It was right in the middle of a song on Sunday morning. The praise team was smaller than usual, just a couple of voices, but they produced a moment that still echoes in my mind. I don’t remember what the song was, but at one moment, when the two voices –one male, one female — harmonized, it lifted my heart, brought a spontaneous smile to my face, and made me stop and marvel at the beauty of that moment.

Eight days later, I am still thinking about that moment. There was another such moment this morning when, as turned the corner on my way to work and the pre-sunrise colors in the sky took my breath away and made me smile. In the dim morning light, my phone’s camera just wouldn’t capture the colors to preserve that moment, so I can’t even share it with you. Or when I got back home tonight and my two-year-old grandson saw me and shouted, “You came back!” How could I not smile at that?

I am grateful that God sprinkles these little moments into my day from time to time. Sometimes you smile because you have to. Or because you don’t want to cry. But sometimes you just can’t help it.

Sounds of heaven

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Photo by Fab Lentz on Unsplash

A couple of days ago I waded into the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. From previous readings, I knew there would be much I wouldn’t understand. But as always happens, something would capture my imagination. Something would resonate.

In the very first chapter, Ezekiel’s visions include creatures with faces and wings within earshot of the voice of God. “As they flew, their wings sounded to me like waves crashing against the shore” (Ezekiel 1:24 NLT). I’ve heard that sound lots of times. Could it mean that  I’ve heard some of the sounds of heaven?

That would be awesome. Heaven always seems so far away, so remote, so distant. Yet if some of its sounds echo in our world, it might not be so far away after all. Are there any other sounds? Sure there are: thunder, a mighty rushing wind, a river, silence. Those are some that immediately come to mind. I’m sure there are more. I’ve heard all these. I’ve heard the sounds of heaven.

Maybe we should spend more time just listening.

You might have all the answers, but you don’t hold the office.

talkingYesterday, I had the privilege of attending and speaking at an awards ceremony for a long time friend and member of the congregation. After the formal part of the ceremony, the other guests and I gathered for a meal. I had a chance to sit with the other guest speaker for the occasion, the mayor or our city. I looked forward to talking with her and hearing about her first year in office.

However the gentleman sitting to the other side of her hijacked the conversation. I listened carefully as he held forth on many of his own experiences and opinions on the future of our city. I was impressed with the mayor’s capacity to sit and patiently listen to his expertise in economics, civics, politics, and local government. As I sat there, I realized that her job and mine aren’t much different in that respect. We both attract volumes of advice from those who have all the answers, but don’t hold the office.

It is no different from fans who know exactly what the coach and quarterback should be doing, but aren’t on the field. Or those who have much to say about managers and pitchers, but they aren’t on the roster. Or for that matter, those who complain about their doctors and nurses, but have not studied and have never practiced medicine.

I am not immune to this nor am I above this. I need to be careful before I jump all over someone who works a physically demanding fifty to sixty hours a week and doesn’t make it to church. I need to remember the challenges of raising a bunch of kids, any one of whom may be sick on a given weekend. I don’t really now what it’s like to be a deputy walking up to knock on someone’s door, not knowing who or what is on the other side. And I certainly don’t know what it’s like to have the responsibility of governing a local community or in our nation’s capital.

Similarly, you may know exactly what the church (or the pastor) needs to do. And you may be one hundred percent correct. But keep in mind that you don’t hold the office. You’re not the one keeping watch over a flock. You’re not the one who knows too well the dark underside of those who seem just fine on a Sunday morning. You’re not the one they call when they’re hungry, dying or scared.

I am more than happy to listen to your suggestions and solutions. But they may not rise to the top of my to do list. They may not be feasible. They may not even be possible. Don’t take it personally. I’m just doing my best.

 

A week on the phone

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Photo by Rohit Tandon on Unsplash

I just spent a week without (and greatly appreciating!) my office manager and assistant. She took a well deserved vacation with her husband, and will be back tomorrow. (God is good — all the time!)

That meant that I couldn’t just ignore the phone when it rang last week. If you called, that was my voice who answered, “Shepherd of the Coast Lutheran Church — this is Pastor Douthwaite.” Here are some of the responses I heard last week:

“Oh. <long pause> Nicole must not be there.”
In a thick Indian accent: “Thank you very much.” Click <hang up>
“Call this number immediately, or you will face arrest and imprisonment by the IRS for tax evasion…”
“Oh, hi Pastor. Are you going to be in the office today?” <seriously?>
“Do you have chronic back pain…?”
“Congratulations, you have just won…” Click. <I hung up.>
“Oh, hi. You’re just the person I need to talk to.”
“Hi, I’m from the Best-Ever-Media company. We’d like to send you a 37 volume DVD series to inspire your youth to more vibrant faith…” Click. <I hung up.>
“I sent you an email. Did you get it?”
“Stay on the line for important information about…” Click. <I hung up.>
“Hi. I scheduled a meeting, but don’t know if any space is available.”
“I saw you have a food pantry today.” Me: “No, I’m sorry, that’s the church next door.”

I never know what the voice on the other end is going to say. However, it just amazes me that 90% of the phone calls we receive are irrelevant to our ministry. So for a couple of hundred bucks a month, we maintain phone lines for no good reason at all!

I cut off our landline about five years ago. Neither my wife or I were making any outgoing calls. All of the inbound calls were telemarketers, surveys, robocalls and wrong numbers. The provider representative I talked with couldn’t understand why I wanted to disconnect.

I wonder if God gets any prayers like this…