What does a pastor do on a Saturday?

I had a colleague who had a very hard time sleeping on Saturday nights. He always lay awake, worrying about Sunday. So he decided to not even try. Sleeping, that is. He would stay up all night from Saturday into Sunday preparing his sermon, and then preach the following morning.

Good for him. I could never do that. I’d be dozing off during my own sermon! That never goes over well. I’ve got my sermon mostly done by Wednesday and go over it a few times sometime on Saturday. Some pastors have a Saturday night service. For me, that would be a drag. My Saturdays could involve any number of things.

Today I worked in the yard, visited a family mourning a death, ran a few errands and got a few chores done around the house. Other Saturdays I have gone to a movie with my wife, performed a funeral, painted a room in my house, played with grandchildren, had some extended family over for supper and built a play fort in the back yard.

My day off is Friday. If you suggest, “How about Friday?” I will typically answer, “No, that doesn’t work for me.” Saturdays however are flexible. Sometimes I had nothing going on. Sometimes my plate is full.

The one thing I never do is discuss the question, “Do you want to go to church tomorrow?” That’s pretty funny. With retirement on the horizon, maybe we’ll have that discussion. But for now, Saturday means I set my alarm for 4:30. Sunday’s coming!

What makes a sermon "good?"

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The other day I was pondering the question, “What makes a sermon good?” What makes it effective, memorable, inspiring, applicable and edifying? Can it even be all of those things at the same time? I know that some sermons are none of those things. Every preacher has a dud or two somewhere in their files. But if someone comments, “Boy, that was great!” what moved them to say that? Was it short, funny, convicting or reassuring?

I’ve come to believe that a sermon that touches my own heart will connect with others, too. Perhaps that’s the best quality for a sermon to have. It connects an ancient scripture with contemporary life. It moves from a page in the bible to a place in your mind. It connects the Creator with his creatures. It allows the thoughts and feelings of a prophet or a king or a fisherman to resonate with a parent, a waitress, a student or a welder.

The moment of truth comes when somewhere in my preparation, a word, a phrase, an image or an event suddenly strikes a nerve. It’s hard to describe, but I know it when it happens. It might be a moment of conviction, relief, surprise or joy. But at that moment, I know I have something to say.

For example, I’m preaching on the transfiguration of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel this Sunday (Matthew 17:1-9). The disciples get to see a side of Jesus they’ve never seen before and never get to see again. All kinds of glory wrapped up in a very plain human package. There it is. Great things like computers or gifts are wrapped and shipped and arrive at my house in very plain packages. Church and ministry might seem boring and unexciting, but don’t ever forget all that glory wrapped up in “the body of Christ.”

That’s the thought process that got me to Tuesday. Now I have something to say. I’m still putting it all together for Sunday. But I’ve made a connection. I pray that my hearers will, too.

Getting my chops in shape

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With Easter around eight weeks away, I wanted to be in shape to play trumpet that Sunday, so I’ve been working hard to get my chops in shape by playing as many days each week as I can. From experience, I know it will take consistent practice over the next few months to play my best for hymns and special music that day.

One does not simply pick up a horn and play after months of inactivity, or since the previous Easter. It takes a while to restore muscle tone, breath support and endurance. It also takes some self-discipline to work this into my already busy days. But you know how it is: you make time for what is important to you. Not only is this important to me, but it is still something I love to do.

Today I took my horn to work with me and played through the Epiphany and Lent sections of the hymnal. It is miraculous to me that I can fill an empty, expansive sanctuary with sound from a single horn. The moment I do, something unique comes to life in me as sounds, overtones and melodies fill a room. I played everything up a step. You can never practice transposition too often.

The physicality of playing a brass instrument is addictive. You send a stream of air through the horn from deep within your lungs. The feel of your lips buzzing in the mouthpiece turns into a tone by the time it reaches the bell. In an instant a dot on a staff is transformed into a sound that not only fills a room, but lingers in the air after you stop blowing. But I don’t stop blowing. I need more. I inhale, breathe out and ride the wave of sound that carries out over the rows of seats in front of me, towards the massive cross window behind the altar and rising through the cupola into the heavens. It is a magnificent and glorious experience that words can barely describe.

Once I start playing again, I can never remember why I let myself get out of shape. I enjoy it so much! But life happens, family and work commitments suck up time and music is relegated to the back burner. Without a band to play with, it’s hard to keep practicing. Today it was definitely worth it, though.

"I want to talk to a person"

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A few days ago, before I took the long drive to visit one of my members at home, I stopped to pick up some lunch to take to them. Earlier that morning, I ordered a few subs online and indicated when I wanted to pick them up. When I got to the store, I spotted them in the bin with my name on them, paid at the register and I was on my way.

After I arrived at their home, we sat down for lunch and I casually explained how easy it was to pick up the food. I’ve done it often. Another family member there said, “When I order food, I want to talk to a person!” Fair enough. Technology isn’t for everyone. But it got me thinking, when do we want to speak to a living being, and when do we avoid it?

We’ve all been through the frustration of calling to inquire about an account, only to be greeted by layer after layer of automated responses and numbers to press. It would be so much easier if we could just speak to a person.

On the other hand, how often do we text or email or message someone rather than calling or talking to them face to face? It’s so easy to zip off a message and be done with it. They’ll get back to us when they can. In that case we save a lot of time by not talking to a person.

Look at how much you can buy without interacting with a human. Practically everything. And since online shopping grows and grows and grows, obviously we like that method.

Ever been in a store where someone shadows you, waiting for you to pause before an item for a moment, so they can ounce and try to sell it to you? I hate that. Sometimes I just want to look without being sold to. On the other hand, have you ever been in a store and need help finding anything, only to discover that every sales associate has disappeared. That moment when you need assistance, every aisle is deserted like you are in a ghost town.

I’ve learned that talking to a person face to face is always preferable. A phone call is second. Texts, messages and emails come third. I use digital means often, but it’s too easy to miscommunicate or misunderstand. Phone calls, including video, help span the distances you can travel. But nothing beats talking to a person. You can accomplish so much in five minutes when you speak in person!

Why do you think God showed up in person?

A visit to the nearby ends of the earth

Earlier this week I made all my drop-in homebound visits. Time to move on to my “make an appointment” “spend a little more time” “sit down over a meal” visits. Today I headed out to see Mr. and Mrs. “H”, an appointment I made a few weeks ago, wedged in between many doctor appointments.

I’ve known the “H’s” for about twenty years, and they are my members who live the farthest from the church. They live about an hour drive from the church. For many years they faithfully made that drive to worship with us. But for the last few years, they haven’t been able to attend as often. It’s been eight months since they were able to make the drive.

I remembered the route today, so I didn’t need a GPS to get to their house. It’s a drive through a lot of undeveloped areas of north central Florida. I drove through wooded areas, potato farms. I passed a number of hispanic convenience stores and fern farms, as well as many, many small Baptist churches. Old Florida at its best, as if time stood still. I finally arrived in their small home not far from Lake George, a bass fishing mecca.

Both were actually doing better than I expected. I brought some subs with me for lunch, since in previous visits, they insisted on feeding me. I didn’t think they were up for that, but they still made some strawberry shortcake for dessert. Their little toy poodle was ecstatic to see me, but was relegated to her crate when it was time to get serious.

After about 40 minutes of small talk and extensive medical updates, I did a brief devotion, confession and absolution, and gave holy communion. While they were able to listen to religious programming via the internet, they do not have access to the sacrament, something very important to them. It’s a privilege to bring the means of grace to them.

We had a nice meal together, chatted a lot about possible assisted living scenarios, and caught up on neighbors and church family. One thing hasn’t changed. They have not lost their sense of humor. They never fail to make me laugh! That is their precious gift to me. Of course, I learned long ago that those I go to visit often minister more to me than I to them. They love to hear stories about what’s going on at church and how everyone is doing. I know they miss their church family!

After about two hours there, I thanked them for allowing me to come and headed home. The next time I see them will probably be at a hospital, since some surgery is on their schedule in a few weeks. Visits like this make me realize that some of the most faithful and devout members of a church are rarely able to attend on a Sunday morning. Also, God can create sacred space in the most modest of homes around Word and Sacrament. Finally, my physical presence means the world to them, connecting them with their church family.

It was a really good visiting day.

Hospital visit day

Another part of pastoral care is visiting members in the hospital. By grace, all my visits today were at the closest hospital. There have been days when I have had visits in Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. But today, I got to stay in my home town of Palm Coast.

I scored a parking spot right outside the main visitor entrance. But since they were painting that area, I had to walk all the way around to reach the doorway. I stopped at the front desk to ask one of the volunteers for a room number for “M”, whom I had seen in ICU two days ago. I had hoped that she had moved, but the very nice volunteer gave me the same room number.

I made my way to the elevator, but not before getting some disinfectant for my hands. I rode the elevator to the second floor and headed to the ICU waiting room. There I called and asked if I could visit “M.” They said, “Come on through.” “M” was there with her husband. She was doing just a little better than my last visit, but was far from being well. The ICU is not a place to stay for long, so I said a prayer with them and headed out. I said another unspoken prayer on the way out for her and for her caregivers. They can use all the help they can get.

I made my way out of ICU and down the hall to see “J” who had been recovering from surgery for the last four days. I hoped he would be just about ready to go home, but he was really having trouble breathing. His surgical site had healed well, but he needed more time to recover fully. I could tell he wasn’t feeling well, so I only stayed long enough to say a quick prayer. I left to let the nurses do their work.

In the seating area by the elevators, I sat to call “J’s” wife and let her know I had stopped by and to make sure she was doing OK. Nervous at first, she soon calmed as we chatted. She would soon be on her way to the hospital.

I thought I had finished my rounds for the day, but as I headed out to my car, I caught sight of a friend, a nurse, whom I had just prayed for this past Sunday. I stopped to talk to “C,” whom I hadn’t seen for a long time. I told her we had prayed for her in church the past Sunday. She brought me up to date on her own condition, her husband, and future treatments. It was a gracious and timely meeting, that was arranged by God. He often makes sure I am in the right place at the right time. And for that, I am thankful.

My visits were done for the day, but on my drive home I had a great conversation with Jesus about all that I experienced. It’s always good to debrief after my rounds.

A (mostly) nursing home day

One of the realities and responsibilities of my pastoral ministry is the cycle of visits to members who can’t get out to worship with us on Sundays. Once a month I endeavor to get to those we call “shut-in” or “homebound” to bring them Holy Communion. Some of them are in nursing homes, others in assisted living, and still others live at home. Sometimes I spread them out over the month, but today I decided I would get to all my nursing home members, plus one at home receiving nursing care.

They’re all spread out over two counties, so I started with the furthest away, about a thirty-minute drive from church. “J” has been in a care facility for about eight months now. I try to get there just as she is finishing her lunch and just before her husband arrives to spend the afternoon with her. She is eighty-six. He is ninety. I typically find her in the common room and sit and chat with her and other at her table. They are always curious to learn about me and share with me where they are from. But today, I found “J” in her room, dozing, with a full lunch tray in front of her. When I said her name, she woke and greeted me, glanced at her lunch and asked, “What is that?” I identified the broccoli and au gratin potatoes, but I wasn’t really sure what kind of meat was smothered in gravy. Anyway, she didn’t look that hungry. We chatted briefly about her youngest daughter who had just gotten married. Two nurses walked in and said that they had just called the ambulance to take “J” to the hospital for some tests and treatment. I knew my window of opportunity would be brief, so I gave her communion and prayed with her. Just in time. The EMTs arrived to transport her. Upon returning to my car, I let her husband know I had been there, where they were taking her, and reminded him he could call if he needed anything.

Next up was “M,” who had been in another care facility about twenty minutes away. As I arrived, she had just returned from getting a haircut. She put away some towels from the chair at the side of her bed and we visited for a while. She’s been there since last summer. Today we talked a bit about her love for the Orlando Disney attractions. That’s why she and her husband moved to Florida years ago. Sadly, he died soon after, but she and her family made frequent trips to Disneyworld. She can’t quite understand why her daughter left her there, a conversation we have each time I come to visit. She wouldn’t be safe alone, so I am thankful for the care she receives there. “M” shares that it’s been a busy day, and I sense she’s a little tired, so I read some scripture to her, give her communion and pray with her.

Visit number three was the home of “K,” who hadn’t gotten out much for about two years, since her husband died. If not for her two sons who lived there with her, she would have had to be in a nursing care center long ago. Their caregiving responsibilities had exponentially increased three months ago when “K” fell and injured her shoulder and wrists. About a year ago, since she had some issues using the phone, we agreed that I would just stop by once a month to visit. One of her sons greeted me at the door when I arrived, just as “K” was getting up from an early afternoon nap. She is always so glad to see me. After a few minutes of chatting about how she was doing, the conversation transitioned to her late husband and many other family members she missed but remembered. Her recollection of family history amazes me. Details of names, dates, occupations, locations and conversations poured out as “K” wove together a complex monologue. I know she was simply glad to have someone to talk to.

On to my final visit of the day, “C,” who has been in her care location for about 18 months. Her memory has waned, but she always knows me and makes me laugh. However, I know she will forget my visit just moments after I leave, so I write the date on my business card her bulletin board. Her husband, who comes each morning to see her, sees the communion cup and asks about our visit, which she never remembers. Today, her door was closed and I could hear lots of activity from the room, so I sat and waited in the hallway. After about ten minutes, two caregivers came out and it was my turn. I shared with her much about seasonal worshipers and visitors to our church. She just smiles and listens. After communion we pray and I head home.

Every three or four weeks, I step into their “homes” and worlds with the precious gifts of God’s grace. Today’s rounds took about four hours to complete. I probably spent more time driving than actually interacting, but I’ve learned to never underestimate the value of a visit like that. There is indeed power in the Word and the Sacrament to touch the heart of someone who will most likely see the Lord face to face sooner than I will. Each one reminds me of the blessing of caring for the least of these his brothers and sisters.

Yes, I have time for a question

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Twenty minutes or so before worship began last week, a good friend of mine asked, “Do you have time for a quick theological question?”

My heart rate increased, adrenaline began pumping as I reveled in that moment. Even in those moments when I should focus on the hour ahead of me, I love a good question about God, faith, Jesus or the church. In fact, when someone asks less specifically, “Can I ask you a question?” I will often reply, “I hope it’s a bible question!”

Many questions aren’t biblical or theological. In fact, they are usually anything but. For example,

  • “Do you know the copier access code?”
  • “Do we have any more garbage bags?”
  • “Whatever happened to __________?” (Fill in anyone’s name.)
  • “Where do you go to get your car fixed?”
  • “Who is that person I saw at church yesterday? He was older, had gray hair, wore glasses…”
  • “Why is it so cold/hot/noisy/dark/bright in here?”
  • “Where can I find a roll of toilet paper?”
  • “Why didn’t I get any offering envelopes?”
  • “When is the dumpster going to get emptied?”
  • “Can I use the fellowship hall for a birthday party in June?”
  • “Who left this food in the refrigerator?”
  • “What happened to the food that was in the refrigerator?”
  • “Why isn’t there anything on that bulletin board?”
  • “When did you get glasses?”
  • “Where are your glasses?”

Do I have time for a theological question? Most certainly, yes!

Squirrel 1, me 0

Persistent. Determined. Ingenious. Clever. Acrobatic. These are some but certainly aren’t all the adjectives I could use to describe the latest squirrel to defeat my latest squirrel-proof bird feeder.

He had to scamper up that 1/2″ pole, then latch his back feet onto a non-moving part of the feeder, leaving his front feet free to grab the tasty sunflower seeds. In theory, the outer sleeve of the feeder would slide over the opening, denying him access to the seeds. In practice, though, he had no problem enjoying as many seeds as he wanted.

I haven’t given up yet. The cardinals want me to keep trying. It’s on. Let’s see if there isn’t a way to thwart his (and many friends’) efforts!