So what should I bring?

I was out catching up on my visits to homebound members today. I caught up with Janet (names modified for this post) at her nursing care facility at the end of her lunch hour. She greeted me warmly and immediately said, “Rex (her elder) came to visit me yesterday and he brought me candy!” I replied, “I’ll bet you all wish he came to visit you more often!”

Just a few weeks ago, the mother of a member died and I stopped by to visit. I texted ahead and said, “What can I bring for you?” She didn’t respond. So I thought,”What can I bring? I know! M&Ms. Who doesn’t need M&Ms?” At the time, they were a minor part of my visit. But when her mom’s pastor stopped by, Sandy mentioned, “My pastor brought M&Ms!” Gooooooal! I felt pretty competent at that moment.

Over the years I’ve brought many things to my homebound members. Word and Sacrament of course. But I have also brought lunch from local restaurants: mostly Subway and Chinese takeout.

My best delivery however was a half-gallon of vodka. I know, that deserves some explanation. Karen lived in an apartment by the beach, and her alcoholic landlord lived in the same building. Just before I left the church, I got a call, and Karen asked me to stop by the liquor store and get the cheapest half-gallon of vodka I could find. She would pay me when I got there. If Dave (her landlord) didn’t have his vodka, there would be hell to pay and she was hoping to avoid that. I don’t especially care for vodka, so it was the first and only time I’ve purchased it, and certainly the only time I’ve been in a liquor store in my clerical collar. The guy at the register didn’t even blink, which is a troubling. How many clergy had he served that day?

My second-best delivery was a bag full of prescriptions medications for Karen. When she asked me to stop by the pharmacy, I said, “Sure, I’ll pick up come meds.” It turned out to be about twelve medications! She had described me to the pharmacist, so he immediately knew who I was and loaded me up with all of her pills. Since she was on Medicare and Medicaid I think I had to pony up $3.00 for her meds.

So if you need anything and I am coming to visit, just let me know what you need. I’m on it. (BTW, they didn’t teach me anything about this at the seminary!)

How has my preaching changed?

I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been writing sermons and preaching weekly to congregations for nearly thirty-four years. Yes, a lot has changed since I first started preparing, writing and delivering sermons.

Today, I have a wealth of resources in the palm of my hand. With just my phone I have access to original language (Hebrew and Greek) tools, commentaries, and written and video sermons on every verse in the bible! Some of those resources are great. Some are so-so. Some are worthless. When I started in 1986, all I had was a study bible and just a few commentaries. I was mostly on my own to read, apply and proclaim the text. Actually, I prefer to work that way now. Most of the online resources are old, trite and not applicable to my congregation. In most cases, I’m better off just working with the text.

When I began, I wrote all my sermons out by hand. I still have a copy of my first handwritten sermon on lined looseleaf paper. It was tedious and took a lot of time. A computer and word processing software saved me a lot of editing and rewriting time. Now I don’t even write everything out, using powerpoint software to organize my thoughts.

I tell a lot more stories than I used to. Stories engage imaginations and stick in your memory. I have worked hard on coming up with and telling stories that illustrate my sermon point. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been enjoyable to learn how to be a better story teller.

I have reused very few sermons in my career. You would think that after ten or twelve years, you would have amassed enough sermons to last for the rest of your ministry. However, when I go back and read what I preached in the past, I usually don’t like the sermon. The words just don’t work twenty or thirty years later. Actually I only have one sermon I’ve used more than once, a wedding sermon from Genesis 2:25 about getting naked!

I’ve got about fifteen years of audio sermons preserved on CDs. Not that I or anyone else listens to them. Maybe I will someday, just to see if my speaking style has changed at all. Without really trying, I find that all my sermons still turn out to be about fifteen minutes long. I’m kind of a “get to the point” guy in my sermons (and my conversations.)

On my way to church early each Sunday morning, I always thank God for my voice (because I’ve been prone to laryngitis), the Word (so I have something to say) and for a congregation (someone who will come to listen). God has consistently blessed me with all those gifts for all the years I’ve been preaching!

The rare albino garbage truck

I’m glad my phone was accessible when I saw this rare albino garbage truck on US 1 n the way to St. Augustine. This is a first. All the others I’ve seen were green and painted with a waste disposal company logo. It doesn’t look brand new but has a couple of rakes on the side and a hefty winch on top. So I’m wondering what this is all about.

I suppose you can buy your own garbage truck from whoever manufactures them. A quick search revealed a $250,000 price tag. I wonder what other colors are available? And what options can you choose?

Someone may have made a mistake at the assembly line, and pushed the “white” button instead of “green.” Pretty major error.

Or maybe this person bought a used garbage truck and painted it white for their own business. Could a private collector undercut the big boys who contact with the city? White would certainly make you stand out. But there’s no business info on it, so I’m not sure that’s the case here.

Perhaps this isn’t a garbage truck at all. Maybe its a cover for some other kind of business, smuggling something from one end of the state to the other. Does anyone ever question what you’ve got in that garbage truck?

Maybe the truck isn’t there at all. It’s not albino, but a ghost!

The Hanukkah aisle at Hobby Lobby

Early in December I was cruising the aisles of Hobby Lobby with my grandson when what to my wondering eye should appear but an endcap devoted to Hanukkah. I wasn’t surprised, yet in some ways I was.

Hobby Lobby makes no secret of being a Christian company, closed on Sundays like Chick-fil-A. Yet it has plenty of aisles devoted to Santas, reindeer, snowmen, and nutcrackers, as well as secular seasonal items for Halloween, Easter and pretty much every holiday in-between. So why not a nod towards a Jewish festival? At least items are 50% off, like most things in the store.

Even so, there are only fifteen items here, none of which look that appealing. I took this picture four weeks before the first night of Hanukkah, so I wouldn’t expect the shelves to be bare yet. It appears to be little more than an afterthought. Or a bone thrown to appease someone who complained that this tradition was excluded. Plus, is this what Jewish families shop for as the festival of lights draws near? I suspect not. Is this what one would expect to see in a typical Jewish family’s home? Not if the festival is more about family gathering, prayers and special foods than decorations and cookies.

I believe Jesus came down hard on those in the temple who capitalized on religious observance. I suspect he would do the same today.

The Pathmark experience

I think my mom was some kind of genius, at least when it came to raising us kids. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she really knew what she was doing.

I’m thinking specifically of taking my brother, sister and I food shopping each week. In the mid-1960’s, the sun was setting on neighborhood markets as a new day dawned for big supermarkets. Our big supermarket was Pathmark, known for big selection and discount prices.

Mom was a devoted coupon cutter. Each time we went shopping, she made a deal with us. If we helped out, stayed out of trouble and didn’t ask for anything, she would split all the money she saved with coupons between the three of us. We could spend it any way we chose. Ka-ching!

So we were usually helpful, fairly well-behaved, and she didn’t have to field constant requests for stuff we wanted. In return, we usually blew the money on candy and learned a bit about shopping. Win-win. I know the money never amounted to much, but we always felt like we had won the lottery!

Genius.

No more prayer? Plenty of prayer!

Our county school board recently opened a meeting with an invocation by one of the local clergy. From what I’ve read, this was the first time a prayer was spoken at such a meeting since the early 1970’s. After much conversation and conflict, they decided not to continue that practice.

I remember being asked to give the opening invocation at a high school graduation in Coventry, CT in about 1989 or 1990. Another local pastor spoke a benediction. It was the only time I was ever invited to pray at such a school function. It was certainly a different time and place. I’m not aware of any non-Christian religious organizations in Coventry at the time. Any prayers offered from representatives of the local churches would be from a Christian perspective. Today, you might get a prayer from any of a wide range of faiths in the community that you may or may not be comfortable with.

I also had the opportunity to give the opening convocation at a session of the Iowa state legislature in the mid-90s, when I lived in Des Moines. the senior pastor of our church handed it over to me, and I thought it would be a great experience. It was. Afterwards, I received an impressive certificate signed by the governor of Iowa and my representative. The only comment I received that day was, “Thank you for keeping it short.” Apparently, not everyone invited to pray got to the point as quickly as I did.

I was also invited to pray before an after a special gathering of a garden club in our town last year. They were planting a tree in memory of some members who had passed, one of whom had been a member of our church. My words were overtly Christian, cause that’s what I do, but no one seemed to mind.

I’ve heard invocations at a variety of university and government functions. Unfortunately, they are so watered down in order to include every belief that I don’t think God Himself would even know we were talking to Him. So why even bother?

I believe it is much better for us to pray for our nation and government each week when we gather for worship. I believe it is important to thank God for our leaders in our own personal devotional prayer. I believe it is much more important to teach our children to pray and be good citizens of both heaven and the United States. It has been a privilege to gather with teachers and students around school flagpoles for prayer. I am thankful for the chance to teach children about prayer in the school at Good News Club each week.

If we are taking advantage of the many opportunities we have to talk to God, we won’t have to worry about trying to wedge one into a community meeting. Plenty of them will have already risen before Him like incense.

Lunch, conversation and communion

Today I took a ride to a nursing home about twenty-five minutes from the church to visit and bring communion to one of our members there. I arrived about half-way through lunch, so I pulled up a chair to the table where Janey and three others were enjoying a meal of country-fried chicken, corn, mashed potatoes, roll and some cake.

I’m not sure if these folks were having any kind of conversation before I arrived, but they sure were eager to talk once I joined them! After I introduced myself as Janey’s pastor, the man to my right, Clint, let me know that he had been a long time member of the Scottish Reformed church and also a big fan of R. C. Sproul. He explained that he was rehabbing from a stroke. He must have made great progress. I couldn’t detect any lingering symptoms. He was from Orange City, but was really from south of Denver, CO. The flight path from the airport went right over his family’s 280 acre ranch. How he loved watching the planes take off and land, just like I did when my dad would park the car at the end of the runway at the Philadelphia airport. We both were sad that you couldn’t do that these days. You can’t get near a runway anymore.

On the other side of Janey, a quiet man named John slowly and deliberately worked his way through his lunch. He ate every crumb. When no one was watching, he then took Janey’s drink and her piece of cake. She was pretty surprised to find only a bite left when she was ready for dessert! She she confronted him, he just smiled. I said, “That must be pretty good cake!” He smiled even more. Janey asked for and got another piece as well as a glass of ice water. Everyone was happy. John asked me where I was from. He was from Daytona Beach, but knew folks in Holly Hill and Ormond Beach, too.

A third diner didn’t say anything during the meal. But I did get a “Goodbye” from her when I left.

The room was pretty busy as nurses gave out medication and other caregivers gave out meals and collected dishes. I couldn’t take Janey back to her room since her roommate was getting some xrays. So we had communion right there at the table when she was done her lunch. I know the others were listening as I read the story of Jesus healing the ten lepers and marveled that so many didn[t return to give thanks. After communion I prayed with her and I know I heard a few other voices when we said the Lord’s Prayer.

I imagine every pastor has ministry moments like this. A little worship service around a table in a nursing home or assisted living facility with some you know very well and others who just happen to be there. They may not remember that moment. They may not remember I was there. But the Lord hasn’t forgotten them and I know He treasures those moments. As the song says, “His eye is on the sparrow and He watches over them.”

On my way home from these visits, I often think, “I hope someone comes to see me one day.” That sentiment reminds me of how valuable those moments are.

“I know Clara Reuben!”

At last summer’s synodical convention in Tampa, the exhibitor hall was a great place to escape some of the long business sessions and presentations when my brain and bottom just couldn’t endure any more. Every Concordia was represented along with every shape and size of ministry at home and abroad.

One morning I stopped by a booth promoting a ministry to Jewish people. I don’t remember the name of the ministry or the person I spoke with, but I do remember speaking about the time Steve Cohen came to my congregation to do the presentation Christ in the Passover. I then shared how years later I had met Clara Reuben, who did some amazing Jewish outreach on Long Island and in South Florida.

At the mention of her name, his face lit up and he exclaimed, “I know Clara Reuben!”

What a small world! Clara was the great-grandmother of one of my confirmation students. I visited Clara a number of times during the last year of her life when she lived in my town. I was privileged to be one of the few Clara never expelled from her home. Clara began every visit by asking, “Do you love Jesus?” She would always tell me, “I kicked the last minister out. He didn’t love Jesus!” And then she would double-check, “Do you love Jesus?”

Of course I do. But more importantly, she did. No nonsense here. No political correctness or cultural sensitivity. You either love the Lord or not. No pussy-footing around. Just cut to the chase. Either he’s Lord, or he’s not. Got a problem with that? Get out!

We could all learn a lot from Clara Reuben about outreach, evangelism and faith. I know I did.

Is that your ax?

I took this picture on Tuesday, which means we were in Jerusalem and I believe we were on our way to the Upper Room of the Last Supper. Our guide often said, “Be on the watch for unusual things” and this certainly caught my eye as unusual. It appears to be an ax, wrapped in paper, hanging from a string tied to a railing on someone’s upstairs porch.

I don’t know who lived there and I have no idea why someone in the city needed an ax, but it’s fun to speculate the reason behind this tool-storage method. The paper and string look new. This hasn’t been hanging out in the weather for very long. It’s fresh. Just think of the possibilities.

  • Kid-proofing the house? Little ones get into everything. When you don’t have a shed or a basement workshop for tools, where do you keep your ax? “I don’t care where you put it, just get that ax out of the house! You want someone to chop off a finger?”
  • Maybe one of the kids found this and brought it home. But they knew mom would never let them have an ax, so they had to find a place to hide it. Under the mattress? Too obvious. Inside a stuffed animal? Too invasive. “I know, we’ll tie a string and let it down from the porch. Mom will never suspect.”
  • Could a murder have already taken place? Where would you stash the weapon? The solution of a game of Clue: “Levi with an ax in the back alley.” I don’t see any blood though.
  • But I can read a number on the handle: 0527634250. A phone number? If I Google it, a get a reverse lookup website in Hebrew. My Hebrew’s not that good. But maybe I’ll call that number. “Hey, I think I know where your ax is.”
  • Maybe someone is being held prisoner in that upstairs room. But they have gotten their hands on an ax. They are hiding it from the guards until one night when they plan to make their break. Could you bake something like that inside a loaf of challah?
  • It could be for sale. In lieu of swip-swop, just hang your item out the window with a phone number. Call me if you’re interested.

You never know how far a blog post goes. One person reposts it, someone reads it and suddenly realizes, “There’s my ax!”