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.
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!”
Every Thursday morning between ten and twenty men from our church gather for breakfast and bible study at a local restaurant. This group has been meeting for close to thirty years, longer than I’ve been the pastor at our church. I’m not going to mention the name of the restaurant, unless I feel kind of snarky a little later in this post.
Within the past year, the franchise has eliminated certain items from the menu. The first item to go: raisins. Raisins were no longer available for the guys who ordered oatmeal for breakfast. Dried cranberries, yes. Raisins? Nope. Next, no more Tabasco. OK, I realize this is a niche market. And they did offer a cheap imitation hot sauce. But if you want the good stuff, too bad. One day, we were told, “No more English muffins.” You could choose from white, wheat, sour dough, or rye bread. Or a couple of pancakes. Biscuits? Yes. All of a sudden though, one day English muffins reappeared in our choice of breads. Nice.
So I’ve been wondering, “Who makes these decisions?” I doubt that the franchise owner is fretting about dried fruit or bread. But at the corporate level, in some office somewhere, someone is pondering, “What can we do to increase our profits? Where can we cut the fat?”
Last week, one group member lamented a local Subway’s decision to eliminate Swiss cheese from the menu. Really? Cheese with holes is a staple of deli sandwiches. What happened? Tariffs on imported Swiss? Shortages and price spikes? Who knows.
I’m just curious. Who makes these decisions? And why? I’m no dummy. I know it’s the bottom line. Follow the money. Some bean counter somewhere decided that millions could be made with a simple adjustment to the menu. Whatever. We can always bring our own Tabasco. Or get our subs from a different fast food restaurant. Or boycott until they meet our demands.
So far we can still bring our bibles. That’s the important thing.
Last Monday morning, as I was reading the bible and journaling, I jotted down a few reflections about Sunday morning. I preach twice each Sunday morning and one sermon always goes a little better than the other. Sometimes it’s the first one, sometimes the second. Anyway, I noted that I left out an illustration the second time around, one that really helped me connect with that morning’s text. Of course, no one knew this but me. I’m the only person who heard the sermon twice that morning.
So I started pondering what I could do to do better next time. Should I have reviewed the sermon between Sunday School and the second worship service? Should I have practiced more the week before?
And then I paused and mused to myself, “After all these years, I am still trying to do better next time.” If I include some of my seminary field work and my vicarage, I’ve been preaching for over thirty-five years. One might assume I’ve got it down by now. But weekly a little voice in my mind suggests, “You can do better than that!”
I like to read articles, books and blogs, and watch videos about speaking effectively. I love to watch TED talks as much to learn as speaking as about the topic. My radar is always on when it comes to techniques that get people’s attention, how connect with listeners, the power of storytelling, and what people remember. I rarely learn anything new, for there is still nothing new under the sun. But it never hurts to reinforce what I’ve learned and remember what’s effective.
At the end of my journal entry, I wrote, “Don’t worry. If you forgot to mention something, it probably wan’t that important anyway. I’ll do better next time.” And I will.
I saved the lion’s share of my visiting for Wednesday and Thursday this week. My rounds included a hospital, two nursing homes and one family’s residence. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, but at the end of the day, I have to admit I was weary. As I reflect on the day, I can’t help but wonder why. I got plenty of sleep the night before (about 8 hours) and ate well. I exercise and am fairly fit. But I didn’t do anything physically demanding. Why was I so tired?
When I left my study at church, a crew of seven was tearing out and installing huge new AC units for our sanctuary. When I stopped home for lunch, a crew was reroofing my neighbor’s house across the street. My wife was working a twelve-hour shift in the hospital ER. My daughters chased their toddlers around all day. They all had plenty of reason to be tired at the end of a shift. Me? Not so much.
Yet I still felt a different kind of fatigue, one that still surprises me. It’s a spiritual weariness, one that follows a day of preaching, teaching or in some way caring for people. It isn’t something that’s easy to put your finger on, but it’s real. A tired spirit is just as real as a worn-out body or brain.
My first visits took me to the hospital. I didn’t know how these folks were doing, so my half-hour included prayer for them and thoughts about them. by the grace of God, both were doing really well. In fact, the first one was doing better than he had for a long, long time. His relaxed smile and clear speach filled the room with hope. Though completely out of context, his wife shared the story of how they met some sixty years ago. My visit was about twenty minutes and my prayer was filled with gratitude.
One floor away, another was recovering from successful surgery, and was looking forward to going home in the next day or so. He and his wife also spoke of their sixty years together and an upcoming cruise they had to put off for a few months. This conversation also lasted about twenty minutes, concluding with a thank-filled prayer.
From here, it was on to a nursing home. I stopped at the front desk to get the room, but when I walked into a large common area, I spotted them as she finished up her lunch and he sat there chatting with her. In the course of the conversation, I learned that he had been working on long term care arrangement for his wife, who really wanted to go home. I could see the pain on his face as he hinted at what was to come. When she finished eating, we went to her room and I read scripture, gave them communion, and also prayed, thanking God for the good care she was receiving there.
My final visit yesterday was at a another nursing home, but she wasn’t in her room. I couldn’t find her in any of the common rooms, so I just left a flower arrangement from church in her room. I would have to try another time on another day.
I had one visit today at a member’s home. He slept through most of it while she and I caught up on all kinds of events in their lives and mine. She spoke of many challenges and a few glimmers of hope. He woke towards the end of my visit so I could also give them communion.
So what did I actually do? I sat and listened. I read a few verses and prayed a few prayers. No big deal. Or is it. Caring for souls is no small task. In my role as pastor I get invited into the lives of families who are dealing with significant changes and challenges. When they share some of their burdens with me, I help them shoulder some of the load. They will not have to carry them alone. I freely share with them the hope I have received from God, too. I may not have all the answers, but I give them what I have.
I guess over the years I’ve learned what helps me rest and recover from such days. I find that gardening or working in the yard, cooking a meal or playing with the grandkids recharges me. These simple tasks and precious lives reconnect me with the one who takes all my burdens and gives me all that he has.
I mean, I go to visit people all the time. I visit folks who are first time worshipers with us. I visit others who are struggling with problems. I visit some who are recovering, sick or dying. I visit some just because that’s what pastors do. On site pastoral care is part of the job. But sometimes I learn the reason for my visit after I arrive.
I recently thought I was visiting a couple who had decided to join our congregation. Because of travel, hurricanes and family deaths, our meeting had been postponed for a while. We finally got together and had a really good conversation about church, ministry, the future and some of the uncertainties of life.
As often happens, ninety minutes passed like a moment. As I prepared to bring the conversation to a close and head home, something blipped on my radar. We had both lost a father in past three months. Her brief comment about grief, stress and sadness made me pause. I believe the Holy Spirit nudged me to stay, inquire, and listen to my friends talk about their loss. That’s the reason I was there.
Everything else we talked about, everything else on the agenda faded away as we shared stories about the last days of our fathers. She needed to speak. I needed to listen. Stories needed to be told. Stories needed to be heard.
I am thankful that I decided to simply listen. I wasn’t there to process a new member. Or answer their questions about our church. Or find out how they wanted to be a part of their ministry. I was there to listen to a grieving daughter mourn, remember and thank God for her father.
And I was there to mourn, remember and give God thanks for my father, too. Sometimes I forget that I am still processing this life-changing event from just a few months ago. Life moves on at such a fast pace that it’s easy to forget that we need time to figure all this out.
So, was this visit more for me or for them? Who knows? Probably both.
One of the hardest questions for me to answer is, “What’s your vision for the church?” Variations on this theme: “Where do you see the church in five years?” “What are your goals for this ministry?” “What direction do you envision for the congregation?”
When I am confronted with the question, I usually hesitate. I have to admit, I have no broad vision for the church. I have no idea where the church headed. I have no idea what we’ll be in five years.
I think I have a hard time answering this question because I easily fall into the trap of responding in a quantitative way. For example, I envision a 25% increase in worship. Or doubling the number of our small groups. Or increasing the size of our Sunday School. Or increasing our mission giving by so much.
To tell you the truth, my vision is much more modest than that. I simply want the gospel to be clearly proclaimed in our worship. I want our parents to raise their children in the faith. I want the Sunday morning worshipers to live out their faith over the next week. I want those who gather for worship to forgive, serve and show mercy to others in school, at work, and in their neighborhood.
Those goals don’t sound like much. Those goals don’t affect our bottom line. They aren’t mentioned in the “fastest growing churches” magazine articles. They aren’t presented in “best practices” conferences. They aren’t impressive at all.
Before I decide what to bet, I need to look at the cards I’ve been dealt. In other words, I need to wait and see who God has added to our congregation before I know what direction we’ll take next.
Many of our newer members are not parents with children. They are grandparents with grandchildren who live far away. Many of our newer members are just retiring from their careers. They will serve the church much differently than they did when they were working and raising a family. Some of our newest member bring with them a wealth of wisdom, experience and wealth to our church. But they have worked hard and love the chance to be “retired.”
What if the future of the church isn’t the young, but those who are older? While we certainly want to bring children up in the fear and knowledge of the Lord, there are time when He builds His church with a much different demographic. Age is an asset, not a liability, in the church.
My vision for the church? Give me a moment or a week or a year. I need for fiddle with the focus and see what God is up to.
I was sitting out back a few days ago when I heard this repetitive pop, pop, pop, pop above my head. When I looked up into the trees in the lot next to my house, I saw a few woodpeckers hard at work on a tall pine tree. I had seen a pile of bark at the base of the tree, but hadn’t yet put two and two together. This tree was dead and filled with bugs, a wonderful buffet for the woodpeckers. This tree also needed to be reported to the city, too close to my house for comfort.
This bird appears to be a female Pileated Woodpecker. Crow-sized, she has the triangulate crest on the top of her head but I don’t see the red cheek stripe of the male. These woodpeckers like large, standing dead trees, in which they can drill for carpenter ants and other insects.
So I believe this is my thirty-fourth year teaching confirmation class for middle school students. I teach this class weekly during the school year for two years, covering half of the Small Catechism each year. This year I have eight students, four of whom are new and four returning students who will be confirmed next spring.
On my drive home last night, it occurred to me that I am now fifty years older than my students. That is two generations of space between us. On the one hand, that makes me feel old. On the other, it makes me feel young. For about ninety minutes each week, I enter their world, teaching them the timeless of truths of God’s Word. I love hearing how the Gospel applies to their world, which is a very different place than when I grew up.
This year I have a parent sitting in each week so I’m not alone with the class. Last night’s mom commented after class, “I feel like I should go home and slap both of my girls!” (She has two in the class.) I told her that wouldn’t be necessary. I’ve gotten used to the unique dynamic of teaching twelve to fourteen year old youth.
I like a lot of interaction, questions and answers, shock and awe, and of course, laughter. So to the casual observer, the class looks and sounds chaotic. There are often several conversations going on at the same time. We change subjects often. We pursue wild tangents. Amazingly, we just about always end up at the Gospel, which is the whole point, right?
Here are a few things I’ve noticed that haven’t changed and a few that are radically different in the lives of the middle school youth that I get to teach.
Algebra and Geometry are still hard. (I never thought so, but I’m a math guy. I liked that stuff.) We sometimes plot graphs, solve quadratic equations and do a couple of proofs, just for my amusement.
Every kid in this year’s class has an iPhone. No Android devices in this group. From what I understand, phones are mostly used to watch YouTube and look at memes. Most have a Bible app loaded, but I make them use a print version for most of the class. Siri is an entertaining ninth person in the class, too.
Teachers are still totally unresonable. According to my students, they assign way too much homework, hand out referrals for no reason at all, and rarely smile.
Friends are still extremely important. Everyone tosses the names of friends around when we talk about relationships, trust, forgiveness, betrayal, feelings and love. That is where the rubber hits the road.
Sin is hard to identify. They are all little Pharisees who don’t worship idols, haven’t murdered anyone, haven’t stolen anything, and honor God’s Word in worship, Sunday School and youth group. It takes many weeks to reveal the selfishness, materialism, jealousy and hate in their hearts and minds. Pretty much just like adults.
Even though they are exposed to a lot of violence, corruption and sex in the news and video games, they cringe when I speak honestly about blood, crucifixion, war, sexual immorality, abortion, and other graphic Biblical topics. The looks on their faces was priceless last night when I talked about Moses tossing blood on the altar and on the people as a part of God’s covenant with them in the Old Testament.
At times their knowledge base is extensive. Other times it is limited. I have had to delicately explain “circumcision,” a “blunt,” “prostitution,” what contitutes “sex,” and what really happens when an abortion is performed. When I do, I always report to my parents the topics that came up. I’ll bet you don’t envy me.
This year’s group is unique in that they are all involved in worship and most are present for Sunday School and serve in youth ministry as well. For the first time this year, I told a family who wanted to send their kids to class that they were welcome to attend, but I wouldn’t confirm them. This family historically is way too busy to ever attend worship. I wasn’t very nice about it, though. I think I was having a bad day.
Imagine your grandfather teaching your confirmation class. Yep, that’s me, gray hair and all. It sure makes me feel younger though. That’s why I keep coming back for more.