Posted in memories, Ministry

The seven seals

I apologize in advance if you ran across this post because you were searching for deep theological insights into the book of Revelation. This two-sided bookmark is on my office bulletin board, and when I glanced at it this past week, it brought back a great ministry memory.

I think my (middle) daughter was sixteen or so when she and a group of her youth group and lacrosse team friends wanted to do a bible study on the book of Revelation. So, once a week we informally got together in the youth leader’s home and worked our way through all the apocalyptic images and symbols. These include the seven seals of a scroll that only Jesus is worthy to open. Their young, imaginative minds delighted in the image of the kind of seals you’d see at Sea World. So I made them each a bookmark with seven seals.

On the reverse side, I arranged pictures of the ten plagues from Exodus. These helped us connect the images of God’s judgment in the Old Testament with these in the New.

Every once in a while, teach kids and youth. It will keep you young. And you will learn a lot!

Posted in Ministry

The good and the not-so-good of digital church

In a faced-covered, quarantined, CoVid-19 world, many churches like mine adapted to streamed online worship services. In some respects, it worked well. In other ways we struggled. Either we’re still just not used to virtual worship or we aren’t cut out for a digital existence. Will this define us from now on, or is this just a season in the life of the church?

As I ponder my own experiences, I see both blessings and failings in the digital church. Here are my observations, as both preacher and worshiper.

We reach more than ever!

As soon as we began to stream our services via Facebook and YouTube, we not only brought worship into the homes of our members, but reached people in faraway places. Our sphere of influence became the globe as family, friends and complete strangers watched and listed to the music and the message. One memorial service we streamed had viewers in New York, Hawaii, Jamaica, England, and South Africa. Those who couldn’t travel could be with us.

I have had the chance to watch and worship with my son, a pastor in Dallas, TX. I don’t often get to hear him preach. Now, I never miss his sermons and am always come away blessed.

The challenge of technology

However, we do not hold corporate worship in a recording studio or on a sound stage. It is one thing to fill a room with sound. It is another to capture it for broadcast. The first few weeks were recorded on my tripod-mounted iPhone X in an empty sanctuary. The cavernous echoes of that empty room made my voice hard to understand. After a month or so, we stepped up to my Macbook Air propped up on a cardboard box in the fifth row of the church. I could patch my microphone into that device for better audio. But since we worship in a room with a lot of windows and natural light, the video was a challenge. When it became apparent that we might be doing this for a long time, we installed a real camera. However with each improvement, the learning curve becomes steeper.

The learning curve was steep for much of our congregation, too. I discovered just how many had never been exposed to Facebook or YouTube, and really didn’t know how to use their phones or computers. So they were not only blessed by being able to watch our worship services, but they took a giant leap into the communications of the twenty-first century.

Is anyone really watching?

I’ve preached to large audiences and small crowds, but never to just a camera. I’ve long believed that a sermon really isn’t a sermon until it is both preached and heard. In front of my phone, I was preaching, but was anyone listening? I had no idea. Usually I can watch the reaction on the faces of the congregation. But in those moments I could only picture their smiles, nods or grimaces in my mind.

Streaming services report analytics for your videos, including the average time people actually spend watching. The average time is always far shorter than the actual length of a sermon. Sure, you can tune out a speaker in front of you, but it’s even easier to click away from a digital sermon.

My own digital worship watching experience was a challenge. As I sat watching in front of my computer or TV, I was at home, not at church. I was surrounded by distractions I could escape from at church. There I can step away from the world for a moment of peace and hope. But at the dining room table, I was still in that demanding and uncertain world. That peace and hope seemed far away.

What about the people?

It’s great to be able to worship in your pajamas with a cup of coffee and plate of breakfast in front of you. But what about the people? What about the people whose voices can join to sing liturgy and hymns? Chances are you’re just listening, unwilling to perform solo. What about the conversations you have before and after (and during!) worship? You can’t catch up with folks you haven’t seen all week, share jokes, complain about the weather and comment on the news. That interaction is an important part of Sunday morning, too. Even though our interactions are elbows rather than hugs, six feet apart and covered with masks, we are with people. We are with people who share our beliefs, share our joys and sorrows, share their stories and listen to ours. I don’t think we ever imagined how much we would miss that.

When someone who’s been in the hospital is back in church, we witnesses to the gift and miracle of God’s healing. When the small voices of children break the silence and also join us in prayer, we find ourselves in the presence of the greatest members of the kingdom of God (Jesus’ words, not mine). When we gather together at the altar for the sacrament, we find ourselves in the presence of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, praising God and singing, “Hosanna!”

This is our world

For better or worse, digital church is here to stay. This our world. I bank and pay my bills online, do much of my shopping online, and get just about all of my news online. Many see their doctor, go to school, and order restaurant meals via a screen. The church is a part of that world. But the church also affords people the chance to be together, something we really don’t want to live without.

Posted in Devotions, Lent, Ministry

2020 Lent Devotion #24 – Drink offerings of blood

Photo by Sam Moqadam on Unsplash

As for the saints in the land,
they are the excellent ones,
in whom is all my delight.
The sorrows of those who run
after another god shall multiply;
their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
or take their names on my lips. (Psalm 16:3-4)

“Drink offerings of blood” smack of pagan practices that were common in biblical times, but were absolutely excluded from Hebrew worship. Whether animal or human blood was involved, there is no way that David, the author of this poem, would even talk about this practice, much less engage in it. 

On the other hand he was a big fan of the “saints in the land,” those who trusted and followed the commands and promises of God. They were the ones who not only provided a good example, but encouraged David along “the path of life” (Psalm 16:11). 

How often does our attention wander to less than wholesome habits and pastimes in our culture? Much more often than we’d like to confess. Surrounded by those who run after the gods of success, power and possessions, we find ourselves jumping into the race. Those folks always look happier, like they are having more fun and lead more exciting lives than we do. At least they look like that on the outside. Or that’s what they put out on social media for everyone to see. 

Are there others in whom we should delight? Who are the saints in our land, the excellent ones surrounding us? They quietly and faithfully love the Lord with their worship and prayers. They just as quietly and faithful love their neighbors with friendship and mercy. Not very exciting. But they are essential in the fabric of our lives. 

Lives that bestow all honor and glory and blessing to the Lord will never be flashy, popular or even noticed. But those lives will draw us into the worship of myriads and thousands of thousands who know and worship the one on the throne. (Revelation 5:11-12). 

Thank you for the excellent saints who remind me of your power and presence, Lord. Amen. 

Posted in Devotions, Lent, Ministry

2020 Lent devotion #14 – Purification after birth

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying. She shall not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation. And she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days. (Leviticus 12:1-5)

This idea of postpartum infant care makes sense to me. Conventional wisdom says you don’t expose your newborn child to too many of the world’s germs until they’ve got some immunity from breast feeding and a first round of vaccinations. So too in the ancient world, some weeks of seclusion gives the baby a better chance of survival.

This law provided a reminder that we are born into this world spiritually unclean. God graciously provides for purification through those rituals and sacrifices that pointed to his own Son, who would “purify us from all unrighteousness.” That is a gift you never want to take for granted. This time of separation reminds each parent and the community of that truth.

But then what a wonderful day when the family reenters the worship community! What a wonderful reminder that our uncleanness does not keep us away from God forever. Instead he has made a way for us to worship him forever, here in time and then in eternity. I believe God is just as anxious for that time to pass, to welcome a mother and child back to the sanctuary, back to worship and back to their church family.

There will be days when all of us will have to stay home from church, recovering from illness. It’s better not to share our germs with the body of Christ. How good to know that our Lord misses your presence there as much as you miss being with your brothers and sisters in Christ!

Thank you, Lord, for making a way for me to be there with you – forever. Amen.

Posted in Devotions, Lent, Ministry

2020 Lent devotion #12 – The horns of the altar

“You shall make an altar on which to burn incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. A cubit shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth. It shall be square, and two cubits shall be its height. Its horns shall be of one piece with it. You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and around its sides and its horns. (Exodus 30:1-3)

“Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year. With the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the Lord.” (Exodus 30:10)

Even the furnishings for the tabernacle were consecrated with blood from a sin offering. It was “most holy to the Lord,” that is, set apart for no other use than worship.

Every once in a while I’ll catch someone casually using the baptismal font in our sanctuary as a table for their water bottle or a pile of worship folders. I try not to overreact. I just gently relocate the items for them. It’s not a coffee table, folks. It’s for the sacrament! Similarly, I will sometimes find microphones, staplers or binders on the sanctuary altar. Once again, I have to straighten things up. It’s not a workbench or a craft table, folks. It’s for the sacrament!

The idea of “sacred space” is an important reminder that our God is holy. The quality of holiness sets him apart from every other person, place or thing in a sin infested world. Made holy by the blood of Christ, we can enter that space and we can worship him.

That space may be a church building. But it may also be a hospital room where a family prays for healing. Or a child’s room where bedtime prayers are spoken. Or a quiet cemetery anticipating the day of our Lord’s return. Or a dinner table where a couple thanks God for the meal.

Pay attention to the sacred spaces you find yourself in. Keep them holy, for the Lord your God is holy!

Lord, don’t ever let me take sacred space for granted. Amen.

Posted in Devotions, Lent, Ministry

2020 Lenten devotion #8 – Water into blood (part 2)

Photo by Jack Anstey on Unsplash

“Thus says the Lord, ‘By this you shall know that I am the Lord: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood.’”

Moses has a huge task ahead of him. He is to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let God’s people, a nation of slave-laborers, to go free. Moses knows this will not go over well with the sovereign of Egypt. Pharaoh will need a little convincing. The first of ten plagues on Egypt will be turning the waters of the Nile into blood.

That sounds disgusting, doesn’t it? No water to drink, no water to wash your clothes in, no water for bathing. All the water is now thick, red, blood. It clots. It stains. It turns your stomach. Some faint at the sight of blood. Some scream in horror. The thought of a thick red substance trickling from the tap would be enough to convince me to comply with whatever a prophet of God demanded!

We are so blessed to have access to fresh, clean water in our homes. There are too many places in the world where clean water is not readily available. The same rivers from which you draw water for drinking and bathing are used for laundry and toilets. The water you walk hours to obtain is laden with dirt and disease. But you have no choice. For better or worse, that is the only water available to you.

In scripture, paradise (Eden) was found near rivers. Life giving water flows through the city of God in Ezekiel and Revelation. Jesus invites the thirsty to come to him and drink. There is nothing quite like a tall cool drink of water when you are thirsty. There is nothing like the life-giving water of Jesus to quench your soul’s thirst for his grace, either.

Thank you, Lord, for the water that quenches my thirst. Amen.

Posted in listening, Ministry

What else?

A few years ago my wife had to take a class at her work on how to talk to patients (she’s a nurse practitioner). It stressed the importance of asking open-ended questions. For instance, ask, ‘What else can I do for you?” rather than “Is there anything else I can do for you?” The latter invites a simple yes or no. The former draws out more information and communicates more care.

Ever since she shared that with me, I’ve been more aware of that principle. I immediately notice when I hear a doctor, nurse or anyone ask a closed-ended question. I always think, “Weren’t you there for the class?” I also work very hard to remember to ask, “What other questions do you have?” “What else can I do?” “What do you need right now?” More often than not, the answer is, “Nothing.” But at least I gave them the chance.

I made a post-death pre-funeral home visit today and carefully worded my questions to the family. “What other questions do you have?” “What else do you need to know?” Each and every time I asked, I learned more about what to include in the memorial service, a little more about the deceased, and allowed the family to express a little more grief.

I remember some of my market research training from years ago. You always ask, “What else?” Several times, until you have heard all that the speaker wants to share. Asking the right questions can make you a much better listener! I wish I had known about this earlier in my career.

Posted in Devotions, Lent, Ministry

2020 Lenten devotion #7 – A bridegroom of blood

Photo by GoranH on pixabay.com


“At a lodging place on the way the Lord met [Moses] and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!’ So he let him alone. It was then that she said, ‘A bridegroom of blood,’ because of the circumcision.” (Exodus 4:24-26)

God has come to speak to Moses in the burning bush on Mt. Horeb (Exodus 3:1-4). Though Moses doesn’t think he’s up to the task, God insists, equipping and empowering him to go and speak to a hard-hearted Pharaoh.

Before the mission can commence, though, Moses’ wife Zipporah must circumcise their son,  prompting her to call her husband a “bridegroom of blood.” For some reason, Moses had not circumcised his son, but his wife knew they weren’t going anywhere until they took care of that part of God’s covenant. Moses cannot assume his role as leader and law-giver of God’s people unless he and his family are compliant with the covenantal law themselves. For Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro for whom Moses tended sheep, her marriage just got a lot messier as her husband took on his role as leader of the Hebrew people. Both her marriage vows and God’s promises involved a bit of blood!

In our roles as spouses, parents and believers in the Lord, we must always apply God’s commands and promises to our own lives before we impose them on others. We must understand the depth of our own sin and the abundance of his great love for us before we communicate that with others. 

The New Testament image of Christ as the groom and his church as he bride is one way to understand his commitment to us and our salvation. He gave himself up for the church so “she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27). He becomes a “bridegroom of blood,” sealing God’s covenant for us.
Jesus also reminds us to take care of the log in our eye before we worry about the speck in someone else’s eye. In other words, get your own act together before you worry about another person’s life. 

Great advice we can track all the way back to Moses!

Thank you, Lord, for being a bridegroom of blood to me. Let your commands and promises shape my life. Amen. 

Posted in Ministry

Snap, crackle, pop

Yesterday I got to teach our preschool Sunday School class about the time Jesus restored a man’s hearing. We covered our ears to understand what it might mean to not able to hear. We moved our lips without making a sound, too.

The snack that went along with the lesson was Rice Krispies and milk. None of the students were big cereal eaters, so this was new experience for them. They got to hear the snap, crackle and pop when we poured on the milk. Great fun. Of course, they didn’t stop there. They took a big spoonful, opened up their mouths so I could hear the sounds in there, too. And that’s not all. We quickly went through a batch of Rice Krispie treats.

On the playground afterwards, I asked, “So what was our lesson about today?” Of course, their first answer is, “I don’t know.” So I asked, “What was wrong with the man?” “He couldn’t hear.” “What did Jesus do?” “He took care of it.”

Not a bad answer. Not a bad answer at all. No matter what, Jesus takes care of it. I’ll have to remember that!