Another last visit

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Photo by Justin Schüler on Unsplash

I got the phone call last Tuesday just before I headed out the door to visit some church members. But it wasn’t the person whose name showed up on the screen. It was her daughter. Mom wasn’t eating, couldn’t get out of bed, and was receiving twenty-four-hour hospice care. I knew I had to get out there later in the afternoon before they started a second form of medication to get ahead of the pain. It would probably be my last chance to talk with her.

When I arrived I thought, “This must be the place to be.” The driveway and cul-de-sac were full of cars. Inside, I was met by the hospice chaplain, the daughter, and two other hospice workers were in the kitchen. The only thing that surprised me was the quiet. The little Yorkie didn’t come barking to greet me at the door. Yes, this was a different visit.

Just six days before, I had been to this very same house. When I knocked and walked in, the dog came racing to find out who it was and got dibs for my attention. Inside, P. was sitting on the pale green living room sofa, waiting for my arrival. We talked and laughed and caught up on all that had happened since my last visit about a month ago. She was tired from a busy day before, but glad to have some company.

As the usual afternoon storms rolled in, the Yorkie found a secure spot on my lap, nervously shivering after each clap of thunder. She wasn’t going anywhere.

She wasn’t going anywhere during this latter visit, either. Lying quietly at P.’s feet, she was subdued though glad to see me. I can tell. And I know exactly where to scratch.

After a quick conversation with a daughter and the hospice chaplain, I went to the bedroom, where P. was now camped out, on oxygen, wondering when the pain medication would do more than make her feel sleepy. At the side of the bed was a picture of her late husband, whose hospice bed we had sat beside just eleven months ago. It was his retirement picture, signed by all of his colleagues. In a way it was his chance to repay the favor and sit by her bed.

P. had a smile for me and chuckled, “Well, here we go. Not a pretty picture, huh?”

“Looks like you had a rough weekend,” I said.

She said, “Yeah, but what are you going to do?”

We talked a little about how she felt, between sips of ginger ale. Since she was starting to doze off, I didn’t hesitate to ask, “Would you like communion?” As always, she said, “Yes.” As I got the bread and wine ready, I suspected it would be the last time I would bring the sacrament to her. As I spoke the words of our Lord, she closed her eyes to listen. I touched her hand, she opened her eyes, and ate and drank her Savior’s gift of grace and life. I assured her of God’s forgiveness and we prayed.

It is easy to pray in situations like that. We thank God for the care he provides, we commend ourselves into his hands, and speak the prayer our Lord taught us. A quick benediction, and I knew it was time to go.

I got the call Thursday night that she had died after a few days of being unresponsive. I was thankful for the opportunity to visit her that one last time.

Two years ago, I did a memorial service for P.’s mom. Last year for her husband. And now it will be her turn. I am impressed and moved by how she graciously handled both life and death, kind of like Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 4: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9). The worst this world dishes out is nothing compared to the grace God pours into our lives. I am thankful for people like P. who lived out this truth.

The only thing P. worried about was her two grandsons. How she loved them and how they loved her! I wonder what they’ll remember the most about their grandparents. Knowing them and the family, it will be something that brings joy not sadness, and that’s just the way it should be.

The Yorkie didn’t see me out as she usually did. She had work to do. And I understood,.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

An extraordinary Sunday

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I was out of the pulpit, out of the church, out of town today (Sunday, April 15), and had a chance to worship like an ordinary person. Not that I’m extraordinary in any way, it’s just that I didn’t have to worry about unlocking doors, lights and sound systems, preaching and people, and the hundreds of other little things that occupy my mind on a Sunday morning. I could watch and listen and sing and pray in response to God’s Word, which was filled with forgiveness, promises and challenges. An extraordinary Sunday, for sure.

Unless you’ve been a pastor, you may not be aware of just how many things are on a preacher’s mind when Sunday rolls around. I’ve been doing it long enough that I don’t even realize how much is on my mind, until those days when there’s not.

On a typical Sunday morning, I arrive at about 6:30 am, and I

  • Unlock the doors (that’s when I find out which doors weren’t locked properly from yesterday).
  • Turn off the security system (unless someone forgot to set it from the day before).
  • Turn on the lights (unless there was a power spike overnight I have to reset all the breakers).
  • Switch on the sound system (unless someone left it on one day last week).
  • Run through sermon once, while I still have the place to myself.
  • Jot down a few last-minute prayer requests and announcements.
  • Gather up the assortment of folders, papers and belongings that were left in the sanctuary but hadn’t been picked up from last week, including but not limited to glasses, jackets, jewelry, water bottles, toys, food wrappers, coffee cups, newspaper coupons, pens and pencils, hearing aid batteries, and car keys.
  • Set up my bible class room, arranging the chairs, bibles and extra study guides.
  • Put batteries in and strap on my wireless mic.

The next to arrive are musicians who begin their warmup, followed by soundboard person, elder, ushers and their families. This is an easy time, standing out front, talking to people as they arrive, catching up with members and meeting first time visitors to our church.

Once the musicians have finished their warmup, I keep checking my watch until we get to the red zone, five minutes before worship. I give our song leaders a thumbs up and they begin their pre-worship song. As I make my way to one of the seats off to the side, I always have time to greet the children who arrive, and if I’m timed everything right, I begin the invocation right at 8:15.

During the service, I see everything happening. People arriving late, people who leave for the restroom, people passing the babies around, people smiling, people with tears streaming down their faces, and others who do not display one iota of emotion at all. I also see all the people who aren’t there. Some are sick, some are traveling, some I haven’t seen for a while. I see people setting up coffee outside the entryway, I see people head to the restroom for a second time, I see people leave worship early (was it something I said?), I see toys flying through the air in the glassed-off quiet room. (Ironically, it’s usually not very quiet in there.)

My mind is very busy throughout the worship service, too. Thoughts about who I need to visit that week, someone else I need to add to the prayers, an announcement I need to make at the end of the service, a typo in the worship folder, a mark that’s been on the floor for weeks, a bug crawling behind the altar, who’s calling someone in the congregation (and why didn’t they silence their phone?) Who need communion brought back to their seat?

Once the first worship service is over, it’s time to do grab a cup of coffee, lead a children’s Sunday School opening, and teach my adult class. Once the class is over, I have a few minutes to meet and greet those who have arrived for a second worship service, put on my robe and stole and head back into the chancel to welcome everyone straight up at 11:00 am.

When the second worship service has ended, I have one last time to talk with people as they quickly head to their cars. I carefully put away my wireless mic, put the batteries in the charger, hang up my robe, make sure I’ve got everything in my briefcase, and grab my suit coat before I am one of the last to leave. I tug on each of the front doors to make sure they are all locked (sometimes they are), glance at the sound system and lights to make sure they’re off, and check to see if anyone signed the guest book.

So on those precious days when I get to worship at another church and don’t have to worry about any of the above, it is a blessing which exceeds anything I could ask or imagine!

Can I have your attention?

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Photo by Loren Joseph on Unsplash

Post-Easter Sunday excitement, wiggles and sugar-hangovers made the Good News Club a little more challenging last week. After a few songs and teaching about the resurrection via the account of the two disciples who met the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, it was craft and review time. The room divided up by grade to work on a few peel-and-stick crafts and see who could remember a few things from the story that day. Conversation and laughter filled the room, but everything remained under control — except for a few boys in the second grade group. The adult working with that group could have used a few dogs from the herding group to help corral those nine children. I was done teaching for the day so I tapped the four boys on the shoulder and said, “You guys come with me.”

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What happened on Sunday?

IMG-8774This is kind of a sequel to yesterday’s post. It’s mostly highlights from my Easter Sunday. Not necessarily exciting, but a debrief for me nonetheless.

The alarm woke me at 4:30 am. I get up a little earlier on Sunday mornings so I have time to read and write a little before I get ready for the day. First things first, though: feed and walk Samson who is willing to get up whenever I do.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I am a few weeks ahead in my “Today’s Light” readings. I read Deuteronomy 27 today, taking note of the altar Moses instructed the leaders of Israel to built after they crossed the Jordan. It was to be made of uncut stone, a reminder that no human effort would make a sacrifice acceptable to God. It’s all grace.

I then pondered who I would see and wouldn’t see in church today. I’d see a bunch of once-a-year attenders, visiting family and other guests. I wouldn’t see some who were traveling, some who have died and some who I don’t know why they weren’t there. I made a mental note to watch and listen to all the Easter stories going on around me.

After showering and dressing, I got to church about 6:15. I love being the first person there, walking up to the church while it’s still dark as the birds are just beginning to sing and a gentle breeze nudges the flag from its pole. As I was walking to the front door, I noticed a car pull in the parking lot. About half-way in, they turned around and left, and drove to the church next door, which was still dark and vacant. After driving around the parking lot, they drove away. Looking for a sunrise service I guess.

IMG-8773After I unlocked the doors, turned on the lights and powered up the sound board, I practiced my sermon and then took a few pictures of the chancel filled with Easter lilies. I’m glad I got there a little bit early because some of the musicians began arriving about 7 to go over some music. A few folks from the hispanic congregation came to pray in the chapel soon after.

As the Praise Team ran through their music, I stood out front and talked with folks as they arrived for worship. At 8:11, I gave the musicians the thumbs up to begin their preservice song and we began our first Easter service.

Just before the sermon I invited the children to come and look at our last Resurrection egg (which was empty, just like the tomb), and search for the giant empty egg hidden in the sanctuary. Then I gave them their jelly beans and read them the Jelly Bean poem. As I prayed with them, my grandson Elijah, licked a green jelly bean, put it back in the bag, and then put half of the giant egg on my head like a hat. (I’m waiting to see if anyone got a picture of that.) Just another day worshiping with kids!

After the first worship service was over, one of our young men briefly presented to the congregation his eagle project of redoing our playground. I reset my children’s sermon props and headed over to the Fellowship Hall for a really nice breakfast prepared by our Parish Life board and served by our youth. I got to meet a few new families who had come to our area, checking out our church.

About 10:20, I warmed up a little on trumpet, set it out by the music stands, and greeted families beginning to arrive for the 11 am worship service. Straight up at 11 we began with a special cantor/bell/choir call and response, and then launched into the first hymn for a full house of worshipers. This year we had three trumpets and a baritone horn to accompany the the hymns. The choir sang two pieces and the bells rang a second at the beginning of holy communion.

29594660_10211761304368994_4027288363915323199_nAfter worship was over, I got to greet some of the Russian congregation who use our facility on Sunday afternoons. Then it was home for a nap and off to High Tides Snack Jack in Flagler Beach, our traditional Easter supper eatery. We beat most of the evening crowd, and had time to play on the beach a little, too.

29683255_10155600924063460_6691557633990882834_nA long time ago, I can remember Easter Sunday begin hectic, frantic and exhausting. But now with some ministry years under my belt, I just let it happen. Sure, it’s busy, but it’s fun, too. It’s fun to play my horn, meaningful to see everyone, and encouraging to speak and hear the refrain, “He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!”

 

My Good Friday Bible

Today, I dusted off what I call my “Good Friday” bible and took it into the sanctuary in preparation for tonight’s Tenebrae (darkness) worship service. I call it my “Good Friday” bible because that is the one day a year when I use this massive volume. It measures about 12″x9″x3″ and weighs about 8 pounds, easily the largest book on my shelves. It has more than enough power for the end of the worship service when in complete darkness I slam it on the altar, reminding us of the closing up of Jesus’ tomb.

I received this bible from my mom and dad on my wedding day, nearly thirty-four years ago. They, too had a large bible like this at home that had been given to them. I don’t remember ever reading from it much. We had plenty of other bibles that we used for our personal and family devotions. The large bible contained a little bit of family tree names and dates, plus a couple of inspirational bookmarks.

I have slammed this bible on the altar thirty-two times, the number of years I have been a pastor and led worship on Good Friday. You can tell from the cracked binding that this book was only designed to be slammed about twenty-five times.

As I opened it up, I saw the dedication page written by my mom, with the reference to Psalm 18:30-36 and her blessing and prayer, “May your children give you as much joy as you have me.”

This psalm reference contains one of her favorite scriptural images, “He maketh my feet like hinds’ feet, and setteth me upon my high places” (Psalm 18:33 KJV). One of my mom’s favorite books was Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places, “a timeless allegory dramatizing the yearning of God’s children to be led to new heights of love, joy, and victory” (Amazon.com). She purchased and gave away dozens of those books. She knew well the difficult life in the trenches as a mom, wife and nurse. But she also knew joy. She knew the thrill of skipping sure-footedly across the mountains of God’s promises to see the past, present and future from a whole new perspective. I am thankful that she passed that thrill along to me.

By grace, God heard and answered her prayer many times over. My children and now my grandchildren continue to fill my life with so much joy! Thirty-four years later, I understand what mom was talking about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Ashes to go

24hy432Early this morning I took Ash Wednesday on the road. Two things prompted me to do this. One was this article. The other happened last year after our noon service. I joined one of our small groups for lunch, and the cashier at the restaurant saw me in my collar with ashes on my forehead and asked, “Do you have any more ashes?” Because of her job, she didn’t get to go to her church and get ashes. It made me wonder who else was like her?

So this year I got myself and my ashes together and I went to a Starbucks near us about 6 am. I had told the congregation I would be there, and it put it out on social media, too. I got myself a grande dark, found a nice corner and sat down to work and wait for the next two hours.

As I worked on sermons and devotions, a few church members wandered in to see me. Some on their way to work, some up before their caregiver duties began, one on the way to Mahjong, a few others on the way to school. All would not be able to attend worship today, so all appreciated the chance to talk for a moment, remembering with ashes both out mortality and the eternal life we have in Christ. Several hung out for a little, asking about me and how I was doing. Eight folks in all this time around.

The coffeeshop wasn’t as busy as I expected. About half of those who came in had placed online orders, grabbed their cup and were quickly out the door. A couple of folks who were there when I arrived were still there working on their computers when I left at 8 am.

I enjoyed the coffee and the conversation. I may try it again next year. Perhaps I’ll make a little sign (though it was pretty obvious what I was doing.) Or go a little bit later in the morning. It takes a few cycles for people to get used to something new. I like Starbucks better, but maybe I’ll give Dunkin Donuts a try.

Feliz anniversario Vida de Fe

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Pastor Juan Boneta from Palm Coast (left) and his son Pastor Moises Boneta from Vineland, NJ

Tonight, I had the privilege of going to a fifth anniversary worship service of Vida de Fe, the Hispanic congregation that has used our chapel on Sunday afternoons for the past four-and-a-half years. Pastor Juan Boneta and I have been good friends that whole time, so it was an honor to be there for their celebration.

It was cross-cultural experience for me. First, the service was sung and spoken in Spanish. Pastor Juan and his son Moises, who preached, did provide some English translation, mostly for me. other than that, I only had Jesus, Senor, Dios, Cinco años, casa, and hallelujah to work with. It was kind of a Pentecost moment, where many heard the message in their own language.

The service lasted about three hours, longer than I, definitely an American worshiper, was used to. The sermon didn’t begin until the two-hour fifteen-minute mark. It was preceded by music, prayers, special presentations and guests who brought greetings.

I was warmly welcomed by all and got a certificate of thanks. In my comments, I shared how one of our members insisted that we build a chapel as part of our new sanctuary building thirteen years ago. It was designed and served well for smaller gatherings. When we built it, we had no idea that this mission would be using the space. But God did, and both churches were blessed in the process.

I’m glad I got to attend, and I am glad I got home for the second half of the Super Bowl, too. A pretty good Sunday.