A beginning and an end in a moment

It was a beautiful afternoon wedding. Slightly overcast skies kept it from getting too hot as the young couple took their vows just a few steps away from a blooming rose garden. Friends and family watched from all sides, witnessing two becoming one.

Some remained for the vast array of pictures while others, including myself, headed towards the small community center for the reception. I helped put the beer on ice as the BBQ caterers carried in the food and the DJ set up his sound equipment. Just a few minutes later the wedding party entered. Who knew how good ribs and champaign paired? Soon the dancing began.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. I glanced at it, recognized the name, and felt like I needed to answer. The voice told me that Jack (not his real name) had just been taken to the hospital. I confirmed which hospital it was, and thought, “I’ll head down there a little later on my way home.” I also thought, “I better start drinking ice tea and lemonade.”

Minutes later, my phone buzzed in my pocket. Same name and number. This time the voice said, “Jack just died.” What? I just saw him a few days ago. He seemed fine. I grabbed my coat, told my wife what happened, gave her a quick kiss and headed out to my car. I knew that his wife – now his widow – was alone with him. The rest of the family was not just out of town. They were out of state.

I didn’t turn on the radio right away, letting my mind transition from the first day of a married life together to the last day of a married life together. The last day of sixty-five years together. I never know when I will experience such extremes in just a few hours.

Another occasion from a few year ago flashed into my mind. One afternoon I baptized an infant just moments before I did a funeral for her great-grandmother. It was the one moment when all the family could be there, so we laughed and cried and celebrated the first and last pages of life.

Half-an-hour later I walked through the emergency room doors. Suspecting why I was there, a nurse in a mask at a desk asked, “Who are you here for?” After I answered she gave me a room number and clicked me in. I walked into the room where Jack’s body lay, still intubated and IV’d. His widow Marie sat there, head bowed, holding his hand. I touched her shoulder, she looked in my eyes, and reached up to hug me. My prayers joined hers as we commended Jack into the Lord’s hands, body and soul and all things. The words of the benediction spoke a powerful blessing.

I spent the next two hours with Marie. I certainly wasn’t going to leave her there alone as we waited for the staff to contact the funeral home. I also spoke with her daughter and a few dear friends to make sure Marie wouldn’t have to spend the night alone.

We sat there for a while, sometimes very quiet, sometimes talking about life and death. I thought to myself, “Sixty-five years ago, they took their vows, just like the young couple today.” And then I thought, “Imagine that young couple sixty-five years from now!” Time warped for me as six-and-a-half decades compressed into a moment. If you watch space science fiction TV and movies, you get to know the phrase “time-space continuum.” If you are in the ministry, sometimes you actually get to experience it!

“I’m going to have to come to church every week!”

Heard at confirmation class last night: “But Pastor, if I’m going to finish up my sermon reports this year, I’m going to have to go to church every week!” And yes, this comment was accompanied by a suitably horrified face, as if I had threatened to break their fingers.

Their comment wasn’t entirely correct. I pointed out that they needed ten more sermon reports, and that there were at least twenty-two more worship services between now and confirmation Sunday. For some reason, this did not provide them much comfort. They were still a bit disgusted.

The reason I require sermon reports is to stimulate worship attendance. I ask for twelve during the class which meets from September through April. For some reason, families had it in their head that their children could become confirmed members of the church without ever actually participating in the life of the congregation. This is actually the exact opposite of my goal: to equip them for a lifetime of involvement in the life of a congregation.

At the end of every sermon report, I leave a space for “What questions do you have about the sermon?” Ironically, the student who lamented going to church actually did a sermon report last week and wrote this question, “How can someone get closer to God and strengthen their faith?” Yes, I have an answer for them. It goes something like this: God gave you the gift of the church!

I wish I could connect some of these students and their families with those in our congregation who wish they could get to church. For any number of health and family reasons, they can’t be with us, and they would give anything to be able to come. They’d let someone break their fingers if they could come. Well, maybe. You know what I mean. What a contrast.

I’m not going to give up. I truly enjoy teaching this age group, we have a good time, and it keeps me young to hang out with the youth. The evil one keeps whispering, “Why bother?” But I hold on to the hope that maybe the brief time I have with them will be a seed that grows sometime in their life. They may not all get confirmed because some of them won’t actually do anything, but they will get the gospel each and every time I get to teach them. And that is powerful.

Some high ticket items at…Costco?

Clearly a power shopper

Not quite a power shopper

You don’t really know you need anything at Costco until you get there. Once you begin wandering the aisles, you suddenly realize you need socks, razors, many, many rolls of paper towels, croissants, berries and coffee pods.

And maybe even jewelry. Until yesterday’s trip, I had never thought to browse the jewelry counter at Costco. But on our way towards the registers, we stopped just to see what they had. I was impressed. An $8,000 watch. A $44,000 diamond ring in a platinum setting. Wow. Really? At Costco?

Would anyone really drop that much money on an item at Costco? Would anyone with that kind of money really be shopping at Costco in the first place? My gut reaction is, “Of course not.” But then again, would they really carry inventory that never sold?

There must be something psychological going on here. Maybe a $25,000 ring looks like a bargain when sitting next to one that costs twice as much. Maybe the $800 watch feels more affordable when next to one you never could afford. Maybe there are just there to make you laugh as you walk away with the $1,000 ring. A sale is a sale, right?

The power shoppers at Costco all push wagons stacked with so much stuff they cannot possible see where they are going. Better get out of the way. The real Costco members buy 30 rolls of paper towels at a time, stock up on twice that much toilet paper, fill their pantry with fifty pound bags of rice, and delight in checking out with a sofa-in-a-box.

I guess I have a lot to learn about discount warehouse shopping.

Do more or pray more?

There’s a fork in the road when ministry heats up and life gets busy. Either you do more, or “you pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37). Guess which one I do more often?

If you haven’t guessed, I confess that I conclude I need to do more. I need to spend more time helping more people using my gifts in the service of God. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense. Spiritually, though, that’s not the path Christ blazed.

That’s the temptation, isn’t it? When you feel like you are in over your head, you should spend more time working harder to get more done and emulate those who do the same. Yeah, like those who brag that they work seventy or eighty hours a week.

Wait a minute. I’m not following them. I’m following Him. And when Jesus needed help, he enlisted the pray-ers around him. “You better pray that God sends some help.” He wasn’t going to put in overtime. He wasn’t going to make the ministry happen. Nope, his approach was different. “You guys better pray for some help.”

That’s my new mantra. When a can’t keep up, can’t carry the load, can’t possibly do it all, I’m going to come clean. “You guys better start praying for help.”

You know, it took me about thirty-five years of ministry to learn this lesson. I learned that I can do a lot. I can do more now than I could before. I can learn new skills, manage my time better, be more productive and optimize my time. But I’m also tired. I’m not the Christ. And not even he tried to do it all. He didn’t bear the burden of saying all the prayers.

Bottom line: “You guys better start praying for help.”

A moment I didn’t remember. But they did.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

I got an unexpected Christmas card/thank you note last week, along with a generous gift, from a person I didn’t know. Well, at least it was someone I didn’t think I knew.

Inside the card were some very nice words thanking me for performing their wedding at their home eight years ago, The person went on to explain some of the challenges they had faced, but also enumerated some recent blessings. They thanked me several times for the meaningful words I had spoken that afternoon.

OK, this was weird. I have a pretty good memory, especially with names. But these names just didn’t ring a bell. I brought up my Google calendar from October 10, 2010, and it was all there. It should have been a memorable day. Not only had I gone to their home that Sunday afternoon at 1:30 to do their wedding, but I then went to another home to do another wedding at 3 pm.

I’ve been keeping a daily journal for decades, so I rummaged through a box of old journals and found the one for the fall of 2010. Alas, I hadn’t written much about that day. I had only mentioned doing two weddings that afternoon before teaching confirmation class.

When I sat down to write a thank you note, I reflected at how an event can be both unforgettable and forgettable all at the same time. What was for me an insignificant task on my to-do list was a powerful, life-changing moment for someone else. A moment that had faded for me was even more vivid for them.

I was honest in my note about not remembering much about that day. But I also mentioned how something as insignificant as a baby in a manger is at the same time a vivid life-changing moment for us. So are the very simple words, “I do.”

When you are on the officiant side of a marriage ceremony, it’s easy to lose sight of the gravity of that moment. Because of moments just like the one above, I remind myself to give such moments my best. It may not mean that much to me, but it means the world to the couple taking their vows. If they long remember the commitment they make when they “repeat after me,” then I have done my job well.

Sorry, we’re closed.

A local fitness center closed its doors last week without any advance warning to employees or clients. Just a note on the door saying informing all they were out of business.

This got me thinking. What if you arrived at church one Sunday morning and found a note like that on the locked front doors? I’m not in any way suggesting that’s going to happen. I’m just curious. What would you do? What would I do?

Would you call someone? Who would you call? The pastor? Your elder (you know who your elder is, right?) The president of the congregation? The friends you usually sit with?

Would you stick around and wait for others to arrive? Maybe someone else will know what’s going on.

Would you find another worship service to attend that day? Or would you just shrug your shoulders and go to breakfast? I know that’s sounds kind of harsh. I’m just working through some of the possibilities, even the absurd ones.

Would you make an effort to find out what happened? Did something happen to the pastor? What happened to all the money? Would you contact the district or the synod offices to ask if they knew anything?

What would you do in the weeks or months to come? Would you find another church to attend? Would you band together with other members to reopen that ministry? Or would you feel betrayed and just give up on church altogether?

Even though the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church of Jesus Christ, local congregations do close. And I’ll bet some of them close suddenly, permanently and without notice. And we never even find out why. If you search the internet for info on church closings, you’ll learn that about 100 close their doors every week in our nation.

We all take it for granted each Sunday morning that when we arrive, we’ll walk through the doors and everything will be prepared for us to worship. Have you ever thought about your role in that reality? Or do you leave that for someone else to worry about? What part do you play in making sure that sign is never taped to the front door of your church?

The best candlelight moment ever?

This past Christmas Eve candlelight moment felt like the best one ever.

I’ve been doing Christmas Eve for a pretty long time. As in many churches, our evening worship concludes with the all the lights out as we sing “Silent Night” while holding lit candles. The moment is meant to take us back to that night when the shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem heard that the Savior had been born.

It sounds simple enough, but involves more than you might imagine. The music, lights, and open flames must be negotiated during the highest attended worship service of the year. Half of those present have never been to our church before. Some of those who volunteer to help with worship duties are absent, visiting family for the holiday. There is no dress rehearsal. It’s go time. We just say a prayer, light them up and hope for the best.

This year, the sermon was over, the offerings had been gathered, and the moment of truth arrived. I lit my candle from the Christ candle in the center of the Advent wreath and stepped forward to meet four ushers waiting for me. They each dipped their unlit candle to mine, and took the flame down each aisle so that worshipers could in turn light their candles.

The organist began quietly playing “Silent Night,” pacing the verses to match the time needed to light all the candles and help the toddlers find their glow sticks. Glow sticks for the “littles” was a new idea for us this year. And it was great. Since the sticks would glow for 8-10 hours, the kids could break them early in the evening and still have lots of light to last through the night. With no fire or hot wax to worry about, they could be a very active part of this moment.

I could see the sound technician and organist carefully watching the progress of the flames through the congregation. The ushers remembered to turn off the hallway and quiet room lights. As the organist brought up the volume, signaling that we were just about to sing, the room went dark.

Well, almost. Against the darkness of the sanctuary, hundreds of lit candles suddenly illuminated our worship space, like countless stars in the dark night sky. The timing was perfect, and from my place at the front of the church, I heard a collective gasp from those moved just as much as I was at that moment.

As our voices filled the room, it wasn’t hard to imagine the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest!” As the song concluded, I prayed, we said the Lord’s Prayer, and I gave the benediction. At the moment we blew out our candles, the lights came up and we launched into “Joy to the World.” The timing was perfect.

I don’t want any of the credit for that. It’s just a grace moment as many hands did their jobs to the glory of God.

Later that week, someone sent me an email, thanking me for my prayer I said before the benediction that night. I have to admit, I don’t remember what I said. I had to go back and listen to the end of the service, which I had streamed live on Facebook that night. My prayer went like this:

Almighty God, Heavenly Father, You said that Your Son Jesus was the light, the light no darkness could overcome. We thank You for sending that light into our world and into our lives, for shining that light into our hearts through Your powerful word, so that we can walk in the light and never in the darkness. Even if we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death, you are with us Lord, and darkness and light are always the same to you. With you we feel safe, with you we have life and with you we have light. Bless our celebration of your birth tonight and tomorrow. Thank you all your gifts of grace, for answering prayers, for unexpected blessings, for strength when we need it, and new friends along the way. Thank you for blessing our congregation and our ministry together. May we be exactly what Jesus says we are, the light of the world.

Nothing fancy. Simple always works on Christmas Eve. There’s not much I can add to the miracle of the incarnation other than thanks and praise. We had spent our season of Advent talking about darkness and light. Thanks, Lord, for making that moment real for us gathered together that night!

Way too soon

Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash

They say it’s good to step out of your comfort zone. That’s how you learn. That’s where you grow. 

OK, so this is really only a baby step. It’s something most people think is a given. But for me it’s a radical departure from anything I’ve ever experienced. 

I’m setting up and decorating the Christmas tree. Before. Thanksgiving. 

I’ve written about this before. It’s just a part of me. I grew up in a family who set up the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. I was gradually drawn into a much different world where Christmas trees are set up and decorated right after Thanksgiving. i thought that was out there. 

My wife broke the news to me last week. My son and his family from TX would be here for Thanksgiving, but not Christmas. Our family would only have one day to all be together the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. So, we would be setting up our tree before that. Before Thanksgiving. 

It turns out that’s not progressive at all. The trend is to set up and decorate the Christmas tree on November 1. As soon as Halloween is over, but before all the candy is gone, it is Christmas. Black Friday prices can be had weeks before. Garden centers at big box stores are devoted to rows of pre-lit trees. Thanksgiving? Just a rest stop along the holiday highway to the holiday. 

But even that is not cutting edge. Nope. Those who truly have the holiday spirit have begun their celebration before Halloween. That’s right, their Christmas now takes up nearly one-quarter of the year. 

Holy cow. What is it about Christmas that compels us to increase its size each and every year? I’m pretty sure it’s not Jesus. He doesn’t seem to be the center of this. It doesn’t seem to be the Christmas spirit. These early celebrators aren’t any nicer or friendlier than they were last summer or spring. It’s not the gifts. People buy most of what they want all year long from Amazon. Let’s be honest – most gifts are things we don’t need or want.You know it’s true. 

So what is it? What is it that drives our obsession with Christmas that makes it happen earlier and earlier each year? 

Here’s one theory: we believe a holiday will fill the emptiness in our lives. Without some kind of celebration, our lives seem trivial, meaningless, and empty. But if we have a party, we’re alive. Important. Noticed. So we over-celebrate Cinco de Mayo, even thought we couldn’t care less what that might be about. We take extra days to celebrate Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, Valentines Day, Mothers Day, Super Bowl Sunday and New Years Day. Add to that the B-list holidays of Fathers Day, Presidents Day, Administrative Professionals Day, Nurse’s Day, Boss’ Day, Grandparents Day, and in my home state of Pennsylvania, Groundhog Day. Oh, and you better not leave out your family’s birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, promotions and award ceremonies. 

Call me a Grinch, a Scrooge, or simply tired. Don’t hate me. You can celebrate Christmas as long and hard as you wish. I just want to enjoy time with my family and celebrate Jesus’ birthday on his birthday. 

A little paleo, anyone?

paleo picAs we were joining CrossFit Hammock Beach my wife and I accepted the paleo-diet challenge offered by the owner/coaches. Six weeks of eating like an ancestral hunter-gatherer caveman. We ate healthy already, so how hard could it be?

The biggest adjustment was eliminating grain from our meals. I was used to making a sandwich, smearing peanut butter on a slice of bread, snacking on tortilla chips, cereal for breakfast, and preparing pasta and rice as side dishes. I cut all that out and switched from peanut butter to almond butter, too.

Another adjustment was not drinking alcohol. A beer a night, a little bourbon here and there, or a glass of wine with supper were part of our routine. We hopped on the wagon for six weeks.

We were already mostly dairy free. Just had to cut out cheese. I already drank my coffee black. We had already stopped buying food with added sugar, so that really wasn’t an adjustment. I hardly ever drank soda, so nothing changed there. We cut way back on oranges and bananas, easy to grab snacks but a little high on natural sugars.

To tell you the truth I didn’t think it was really that hard. I like to cook and I like to cook with fresh ingredients. Most of our suppers were already just a salad with a grilled piece of meat. My only cheat along the way, if you could call it that, was a bite of cake after my grandson’s baptism and a glass of red wine at a family birthday celebration.

The big question: did it make any difference? Did I feel different? Did I look different? Did I perform better, especially learning new skills at CrossFit?

Here’s what I noticed:

  • I pay much more attention to what I eat. I used to grab whatever, not really thinking about it. Now I think about everything I eat.
  • I need to eat more. Without any breads or chips to temporarily fill me up, I’ve increased all my portions of meats and veggies and nuts.
  • I’m not sure if I lost weight overall, but I know my pants all fit looser at the waist. My muscles seem more defined, but that may also be a result of the challenging workouts I’ve never done before.
  • I didn’t really have any health issues coming into this, so I can’t comment on any changes like that.
  • More energy? Maybe. That’s hard to say. I don’t remember feeling worn out before.
  • I might be sleeping a little bit better. Either that or the WOD wore me out and I was in bed earlier.

The biggest difference for me is probably psychological rather that physiological. I know I’m not eating as much junk and that alone makes me feel better about myself. Plus the fact that I was up for the challenge.

I’ll know more when I weigh in and get measured next week. I’ve saved room for desserts at Thanksgiving, of course, but I’ll continue this plan. I think that it takes more than just six weeks to feel the full effect of eating this way. I’ll let you know how things turn out. I’ll probably start writing about some of the recipes and products we’ve found along the way that work for us.