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.

Livermush

livermushScanning the breakfast menu in the small North Carolina restaurant, I paused for a moment at an unfamiliar word in the menu. Livermush. Along with eggs and biscuits, you got to choose bacon, sausage or livermush. Interesting. At first glance it looked like the name of a Chronicles of Narnia character.

I did some quick Google research and discovered why I had never heard of livermush. It’s a southern dish, especially treasured in North Carolina. I’m a Yankee so I hadn’t ever encountered that stuff. Where I come from – not too far from the Pennsylvania Dutch — you eat scrapple. They are basically the same. When Mary Rizzo writes about the recipe in the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, she explains, “While parts of the pig became sausages or bacon, the rest, ‘everything but the oink,’ was collected for scrapple.” It was boiled up with sage and pepper, then thickened with cornmeal and buckwheat. Once it cooled into a loaf, you slice off a piece to fry up in a skillet. In the south, they threw in pig liver to make it a bit more palatable. In Ohio, oatmeal was used in place of corn meal, and it was called goetta.

scrappleWe didn’t eat scrapple all the time growing up, but often enough that I remember it well. My dad must have liked it. Of course, he also relished pickled pigs’ feet, sardines packaged in tins of oil and mustard that he would spread on a slice of buttered bread, and a vegetable he grew in his garden called kohlrabi. Thank goodness mom only worked as a nurse on the weekends. When my dad cooked, kohlrabi often made it to the table.

eggs and livermushYes, I ordered livermush that day with my scrambled eggs and it was almost as delicious as a fried slice of Habbersett Scrapple from the A&P (or from Friends restaurant in Flagler Beach, FL, who import some from Philadelphia each week). I offered to share, but few at my table dared to try a bite.

 

Another last visit

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Photo by Justin Schüler on Unsplash

I got the phone call last Tuesday just before I headed out the door to visit some church members. But it wasn’t the person whose name showed up on the screen. It was her daughter. Mom wasn’t eating, couldn’t get out of bed, and was receiving twenty-four-hour hospice care. I knew I had to get out there later in the afternoon before they started a second form of medication to get ahead of the pain. It would probably be my last chance to talk with her.

When I arrived I thought, “This must be the place to be.” The driveway and cul-de-sac were full of cars. Inside, I was met by the hospice chaplain, the daughter, and two other hospice workers were in the kitchen. The only thing that surprised me was the quiet. The little Yorkie didn’t come barking to greet me at the door. Yes, this was a different visit.

Just six days before, I had been to this very same house. When I knocked and walked in, the dog came racing to find out who it was and got dibs for my attention. Inside, P. was sitting on the pale green living room sofa, waiting for my arrival. We talked and laughed and caught up on all that had happened since my last visit about a month ago. She was tired from a busy day before, but glad to have some company.

As the usual afternoon storms rolled in, the Yorkie found a secure spot on my lap, nervously shivering after each clap of thunder. She wasn’t going anywhere.

She wasn’t going anywhere during this latter visit, either. Lying quietly at P.’s feet, she was subdued though glad to see me. I can tell. And I know exactly where to scratch.

After a quick conversation with a daughter and the hospice chaplain, I went to the bedroom, where P. was now camped out, on oxygen, wondering when the pain medication would do more than make her feel sleepy. At the side of the bed was a picture of her late husband, whose hospice bed we had sat beside just eleven months ago. It was his retirement picture, signed by all of his colleagues. In a way it was his chance to repay the favor and sit by her bed.

P. had a smile for me and chuckled, “Well, here we go. Not a pretty picture, huh?”

“Looks like you had a rough weekend,” I said.

She said, “Yeah, but what are you going to do?”

We talked a little about how she felt, between sips of ginger ale. Since she was starting to doze off, I didn’t hesitate to ask, “Would you like communion?” As always, she said, “Yes.” As I got the bread and wine ready, I suspected it would be the last time I would bring the sacrament to her. As I spoke the words of our Lord, she closed her eyes to listen. I touched her hand, she opened her eyes, and ate and drank her Savior’s gift of grace and life. I assured her of God’s forgiveness and we prayed.

It is easy to pray in situations like that. We thank God for the care he provides, we commend ourselves into his hands, and speak the prayer our Lord taught us. A quick benediction, and I knew it was time to go.

I got the call Thursday night that she had died after a few days of being unresponsive. I was thankful for the opportunity to visit her that one last time.

Two years ago, I did a memorial service for P.’s mom. Last year for her husband. And now it will be her turn. I am impressed and moved by how she graciously handled both life and death, kind of like Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 4: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9). The worst this world dishes out is nothing compared to the grace God pours into our lives. I am thankful for people like P. who lived out this truth.

The only thing P. worried about was her two grandsons. How she loved them and how they loved her! I wonder what they’ll remember the most about their grandparents. Knowing them and the family, it will be something that brings joy not sadness, and that’s just the way it should be.

The Yorkie didn’t see me out as she usually did. She had work to do. And I understood,.

 

 

 

 

Going to church in an age of mass shootings

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Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

It has happened in schools and movie theaters, on military bases and college campuses, in nightclubs and churches. Someone walks in and opens fire, killing and wounding innocent people.

Yes, it’s happened churches. How has this reality changed the dynamic of going to church? As the pastor of a Lutheran church, I never worried about it very much till a few years ago. Our church doors are still open every Sunday and we still welcome anyone and everyone who wants to worship. But somethings have changed. Here are a few of my observations:

More worshipers are carrying weapons

I don’t know who all is carrying on a Sunday morning, but I know that the number has grown over the last year. With holsters or purses designed to be inconspicuous, the person sitting next to you in church may well have a permit and a handgun with them. I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I feel good knowing that these folks have taken steps to protect themselves and the congregation. On the other hand, I pray that they have taken some classes and know how to use the weapon safely.

We now have an emergency plan

A few of our members who have been police officers, military or security have sat down and developed an emergency plan, should a threat arise. The plan includes dealing with medical, fire and storm emergencies, as well as violence. They make a conscious effort to keep an eye on the room where we gather for worship, taking note of anything out of the ordinary. I’m thankful for those who bring that training and experience to the table.

Such times are not without precedent in the bible. When Nehemiah was overseeing the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem after the return from Babylonian exile, half of the workers did construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. Some of the workers held a tool in one hand and a weapon in the other (Nehemiah 4:16,17).

We are better at welcoming guests

Things have calmed down recently, but for a few months we were on edge. We carefully watch anyone arriving for worship whom we don’t recognize. I know that sounds a little unfriendly, but it actually enhanced our welcome. We make a concerted effort to welcome and get to know our guests.

One morning a young many with a backpack arrived for worship on a bicycle. After entering the church, he left his backpack in the back row while he went out to lock up his bike. The pulse of the sopranos and altos began to race as they watched this happen from the front row of the choir loft. The gentleman returned to his seat and worshiped with us without any incident.

We have a remote alert system

We’ve installed what some have called a “panic button.” It’s really just a way for me to alert the elder and ushers to something going on. From the front of the church, I can see everything happening in the room, while most of the worshipers are facing the altar. If I see someone come in late who needs help or see something out of the ordinary in the entryway, I can push a button, a small light flashes in front of them, and I have their attention. I have not had to actually use this yet, and I’d be fine never having to use it.

We are more thankful than ever for the freedom to worship

Along with the uncertainty of what might happen on any given day, we enjoy a freedom to worship that is still one of God’s greatest blessings. We ought never take that for granted.

It has not always been this way. Early Christians met in secret to worship, knowing that if they were caught they could be put to death. Conditions were much the same not that long ago in the Soviet Union and China.

I have worshiped in inner city churches where iron gates at the front door were locked when worship began and did not open until it was time to go home. The shadow of similar iron bars could be seen through the stained-glass windows. Yes, it was that kind of a neighborhood.

I have worshiped in other countries, where every gas station was protected by armed attendants and an armed guard accompanied us to church where the ushers all had nine millimeter handguns on their belts. The worship – in a language I didn’t know – was vibrant, Spirit-filled, heart-felt, and well-guarded.

My greatest fear

Having said all that, my greatest fear has nothing to do with weapons or shooters. The greatest danger we face is that parents do not bring their children to church. For a wide variety of reasons, so many mothers and fathers do not regularly avail themselves of our freedom to worship, teaching the next generation that it is not important. If we do not raise our children in the fear and knowledge of the Lord, will religious freedom mean anything to them? If that freedom is threatened, limited, or taken away, will they even care? Or will it have no effect on their lifestyle at all?

That’s what frightens me.

 

 

 

An extraordinary Sunday

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I was out of the pulpit, out of the church, out of town today (Sunday, April 15), and had a chance to worship like an ordinary person. Not that I’m extraordinary in any way, it’s just that I didn’t have to worry about unlocking doors, lights and sound systems, preaching and people, and the hundreds of other little things that occupy my mind on a Sunday morning. I could watch and listen and sing and pray in response to God’s Word, which was filled with forgiveness, promises and challenges. An extraordinary Sunday, for sure.

Unless you’ve been a pastor, you may not be aware of just how many things are on a preacher’s mind when Sunday rolls around. I’ve been doing it long enough that I don’t even realize how much is on my mind, until those days when there’s not.

On a typical Sunday morning, I arrive at about 6:30 am, and I

  • Unlock the doors (that’s when I find out which doors weren’t locked properly from yesterday).
  • Turn off the security system (unless someone forgot to set it from the day before).
  • Turn on the lights (unless there was a power spike overnight I have to reset all the breakers).
  • Switch on the sound system (unless someone left it on one day last week).
  • Run through sermon once, while I still have the place to myself.
  • Jot down a few last-minute prayer requests and announcements.
  • Gather up the assortment of folders, papers and belongings that were left in the sanctuary but hadn’t been picked up from last week, including but not limited to glasses, jackets, jewelry, water bottles, toys, food wrappers, coffee cups, newspaper coupons, pens and pencils, hearing aid batteries, and car keys.
  • Set up my bible class room, arranging the chairs, bibles and extra study guides.
  • Put batteries in and strap on my wireless mic.

The next to arrive are musicians who begin their warmup, followed by soundboard person, elder, ushers and their families. This is an easy time, standing out front, talking to people as they arrive, catching up with members and meeting first time visitors to our church.

Once the musicians have finished their warmup, I keep checking my watch until we get to the red zone, five minutes before worship. I give our song leaders a thumbs up and they begin their pre-worship song. As I make my way to one of the seats off to the side, I always have time to greet the children who arrive, and if I’m timed everything right, I begin the invocation right at 8:15.

During the service, I see everything happening. People arriving late, people who leave for the restroom, people passing the babies around, people smiling, people with tears streaming down their faces, and others who do not display one iota of emotion at all. I also see all the people who aren’t there. Some are sick, some are traveling, some I haven’t seen for a while. I see people setting up coffee outside the entryway, I see people head to the restroom for a second time, I see people leave worship early (was it something I said?), I see toys flying through the air in the glassed-off quiet room. (Ironically, it’s usually not very quiet in there.)

My mind is very busy throughout the worship service, too. Thoughts about who I need to visit that week, someone else I need to add to the prayers, an announcement I need to make at the end of the service, a typo in the worship folder, a mark that’s been on the floor for weeks, a bug crawling behind the altar, who’s calling someone in the congregation (and why didn’t they silence their phone?) Who need communion brought back to their seat?

Once the first worship service is over, it’s time to do grab a cup of coffee, lead a children’s Sunday School opening, and teach my adult class. Once the class is over, I have a few minutes to meet and greet those who have arrived for a second worship service, put on my robe and stole and head back into the chancel to welcome everyone straight up at 11:00 am.

When the second worship service has ended, I have one last time to talk with people as they quickly head to their cars. I carefully put away my wireless mic, put the batteries in the charger, hang up my robe, make sure I’ve got everything in my briefcase, and grab my suit coat before I am one of the last to leave. I tug on each of the front doors to make sure they are all locked (sometimes they are), glance at the sound system and lights to make sure they’re off, and check to see if anyone signed the guest book.

So on those precious days when I get to worship at another church and don’t have to worry about any of the above, it is a blessing which exceeds anything I could ask or imagine!

Can I have your attention?

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Photo by Loren Joseph on Unsplash

Post-Easter Sunday excitement, wiggles and sugar-hangovers made the Good News Club a little more challenging last week. After a few songs and teaching about the resurrection via the account of the two disciples who met the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, it was craft and review time. The room divided up by grade to work on a few peel-and-stick crafts and see who could remember a few things from the story that day. Conversation and laughter filled the room, but everything remained under control — except for a few boys in the second grade group. The adult working with that group could have used a few dogs from the herding group to help corral those nine children. I was done teaching for the day so I tapped the four boys on the shoulder and said, “You guys come with me.”

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What happened on Sunday?

IMG-8774This is kind of a sequel to yesterday’s post. It’s mostly highlights from my Easter Sunday. Not necessarily exciting, but a debrief for me nonetheless.

The alarm woke me at 4:30 am. I get up a little earlier on Sunday mornings so I have time to read and write a little before I get ready for the day. First things first, though: feed and walk Samson who is willing to get up whenever I do.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I am a few weeks ahead in my “Today’s Light” readings. I read Deuteronomy 27 today, taking note of the altar Moses instructed the leaders of Israel to built after they crossed the Jordan. It was to be made of uncut stone, a reminder that no human effort would make a sacrifice acceptable to God. It’s all grace.

I then pondered who I would see and wouldn’t see in church today. I’d see a bunch of once-a-year attenders, visiting family and other guests. I wouldn’t see some who were traveling, some who have died and some who I don’t know why they weren’t there. I made a mental note to watch and listen to all the Easter stories going on around me.

After showering and dressing, I got to church about 6:15. I love being the first person there, walking up to the church while it’s still dark as the birds are just beginning to sing and a gentle breeze nudges the flag from its pole. As I was walking to the front door, I noticed a car pull in the parking lot. About half-way in, they turned around and left, and drove to the church next door, which was still dark and vacant. After driving around the parking lot, they drove away. Looking for a sunrise service I guess.

IMG-8773After I unlocked the doors, turned on the lights and powered up the sound board, I practiced my sermon and then took a few pictures of the chancel filled with Easter lilies. I’m glad I got there a little bit early because some of the musicians began arriving about 7 to go over some music. A few folks from the hispanic congregation came to pray in the chapel soon after.

As the Praise Team ran through their music, I stood out front and talked with folks as they arrived for worship. At 8:11, I gave the musicians the thumbs up to begin their preservice song and we began our first Easter service.

Just before the sermon I invited the children to come and look at our last Resurrection egg (which was empty, just like the tomb), and search for the giant empty egg hidden in the sanctuary. Then I gave them their jelly beans and read them the Jelly Bean poem. As I prayed with them, my grandson Elijah, licked a green jelly bean, put it back in the bag, and then put half of the giant egg on my head like a hat. (I’m waiting to see if anyone got a picture of that.) Just another day worshiping with kids!

After the first worship service was over, one of our young men briefly presented to the congregation his eagle project of redoing our playground. I reset my children’s sermon props and headed over to the Fellowship Hall for a really nice breakfast prepared by our Parish Life board and served by our youth. I got to meet a few new families who had come to our area, checking out our church.

About 10:20, I warmed up a little on trumpet, set it out by the music stands, and greeted families beginning to arrive for the 11 am worship service. Straight up at 11 we began with a special cantor/bell/choir call and response, and then launched into the first hymn for a full house of worshipers. This year we had three trumpets and a baritone horn to accompany the the hymns. The choir sang two pieces and the bells rang a second at the beginning of holy communion.

29594660_10211761304368994_4027288363915323199_nAfter worship was over, I got to greet some of the Russian congregation who use our facility on Sunday afternoons. Then it was home for a nap and off to High Tides Snack Jack in Flagler Beach, our traditional Easter supper eatery. We beat most of the evening crowd, and had time to play on the beach a little, too.

29683255_10155600924063460_6691557633990882834_nA long time ago, I can remember Easter Sunday begin hectic, frantic and exhausting. But now with some ministry years under my belt, I just let it happen. Sure, it’s busy, but it’s fun, too. It’s fun to play my horn, meaningful to see everyone, and encouraging to speak and hear the refrain, “He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!”