Posted in Moments of grace

What if no one shows up?

I usually get to church about 6:30 on Sunday mornings. I like to be there early to run through my sermon once, make sure everything is set up for the morning and enjoy some quiet before the church comes alive when everyone arrives.

The first wave of people to show up is usually some of our musicians, followed by other volunteers who help make Sunday mornings possible. But yesterday, 7:30 am arrived and no one had arrived. No one was tuning, warming up or setting up music. I was the only one here.

7:35. No one has arrived. This is really strange. Now the thoughts start racing through my head. Is someone sick? I check my phone. No calls or texts. Is my watch right? The time on my phone matches. It’s not the fall equinox, when if you fail to turn your clock back, you are an hour early. It is Sunday morning, right? My guitar is at home. Are we going to have to sing a cappella this morning?

7:40. The bass player arrives with news that dozens of police cars had closed off the interstate and one of the main thoroughfares through town. He had to take several miles of detours to make it to church.

7:41. Music director arrives with a similar tale of diversions and detours.

Soon after, others arrive, all of them taking different routes to church.

When our church was closed for COVID quarantine, I had indeed worshiped all by myself in front of my iPhone set up on a tripod. But that was over a year ago. A weird flashback to a time I hope we never have to repeat.

Later that afternoon, I learned that the highway and bridge going over it were closed as sheriff’s deputies rescued a suicidal woman attempting to jump. They saved her and made it a much better Father’s day for her family.

Posted in Moments of grace

How about a jump?

I had just parked the truck in a spot at Home Depot when a woman came up next to me and asked, “Excuse me, sir, would you be able to give us a jump?”

Well, she got a jump out of me! I was startled because I hadn’t seen her come up behind me. I’m usually more aware of those around me. She seemed to be a few years older than me, was dressed like she had been out working in the yard, and seemed friendly enough. Unfortunately, the folks who come up to you in parking lots are typically selling something or asking you for money. I really hate the fact that I’ve become wary of everyone around me.

I stuffed my fear and put on my “be strong and courageous” pants and said, “Okay.” She pointed to a van a few parking lanes away where her husband stood with the hood up.

“Do you have jumper cables?”

“Yes.”

“OK, I’ll pull over in that spot right next to you.”

I had only had my truck for a few months and I don’t think I had even opened the hood yet to know which side the battery was on. I’ll figure that out when I get there. I pulled up as close as I could, popped the hood and felt around for the latch. I felt pretty foolish when I had to get the manual out of the glovebox to see where the latch was. Apologizing for my ignorance, I propped open the hood only to find that the battery was on the opposite side. Sigh. Maybe it will reach. It did! Just barely. Whew.

Their battery must have been really dead, because it took about five minutes of idling to get the engine to turn over. Everyone’s face lit up when the engine turned over and roared to life.

We chatted for a little bit. They had a home in the Hammock (part of our town on the barrier island), but were spending most of their time at their place in Colorado. Because of the COVID quarantine, they hadn’t been back for nearly a year, and they had a feeling the battery didn’t have too many starts left in it. But they had made the run to Home Depot anyway.

As they and I pulled away to go about our errands, I thanked God for the reminder that most people aren’t up to something. And even if they are, they’re worthy of a few amps of help. Oh, and thanks to all who have and will give me a jump start, too.

Posted in Moments of grace

For the first time in forever

Photo by Daniel Lee on Unsplash

Now that folks are vaccinated and venturing out again, I’ve got another wave of people I’m visiting that I haven’t seen in fifteen months. Every church has what I call “homebound” members. I used to call them “shut-ins” but I found out people don’t like that label. It makes them feel old. Anyway, as the pastor, I try to visit my homebound members about once a month and bring them communion since they can’t be with the congregation for Sunday worship. It seems like everyone has a recent story about seeing friends and family for the first time since COVID quarantining. Here’s one of mine.

So B. is going to turn one hundred years old this fall. Her daughter, whose name also starts with a B, so I’ll call her B-two, is her caregiver. The last time I saw them was February 2020. Fifteen, no wait, sixteen months ago. Wow, that is a long time. That’s just nuts. Because of B’s age, B-two was hyper-cautious about going out and bringing home germs of any kind. B-two went to the grocery store twice a month. When she got home, she took off her clothes, put them in the laundry, took a shower, and wiped down her purchases. She brought the mail in from the mailbox wearing latex gloves, and let it sit on the dining room table for a day or two before opening anything. Hyper-cautious is an appropriate word. They went nowhere and saw no one for over a year. They are not tech-savvy, so they did not watch any worship services online. They just. Stayed. Home.

A few weeks ago, their elder let me know that they were ready for a visit. They were vaccinated. I was vaccinated. The door was open. (Elders are folks in our congregation who help me keep in touch with all our families.) Nice. I called and set up a time to visit. Bonus: they would have lunch for me, too!

When I walked in the door, it seemed like no time had passed at all. I felt like I had just been there one month ago. At the same time, I could see (and they could probably see too) how much we had aged. So much and so little time had passed! A time-space anomaly (as often said on Star Trek).

We talked about my grandchildren that had been born, church members who had died and some who were still alive. B is the oldest member of our congregation. I asked her what kind of party she wanted this fall. She’ll probably have a weekend drop-by event for all those she hasn’t outlived. That’s the problem with living a long life. You outlive everyone who you wanted to celebrate with you!

I was there for about 2-1/2 hours today. Lunch was shrimp cooked in a wine sauce, with a green bean bacon side, a nice spinach salad, some peas and rice, and a frozen angel food/sherbet cake for dessert. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. I made sure I did a thirty minute Peloton ride when I got home.

Fifteen months later, I got to see a few members of my church again. They got to see me. I think I got the greater blessing today.

Posted in Moments of grace

“What a waste of time.”

Joe L. was a friend of a friend I got to know a few years ago. I think he was a little younger than me, a United States marine, and had done quite a bit of work with the homeless before he had to retire with disability. Because of a variety of ailments, I occasionally visited him in hospitals, rehab facilities and at his home.

He knew I was a pastor, but we never talked too much about God. He was straightforward about what made him angry, what he wanted, what he needed and what he thought about others. I enjoyed that about him. I knew where I stood with Joe. No games. No pretense. No pretending.

One time I thanked him for that. He replied, “Why are you thanking me?”

I said, “Well, most of the time people tell me what they think I want to hear.”

Joe said, “What a waste of time.”

I have often thought about that conversation and that gem of wisdom. It is so true. There are precious few people with whom we can be completely honest and say what’s on our minds. We harbor far too many fears about what others will think of us, so we rarely express how we feel. And if Joe’s perspective is correct, we waste a lot of time telling people what they want to hear.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone this past year. Some people are still distancing from worship at church, so I just call and say, “Hi. I was just checking in to be sure you were well. What can we do for you?” After a while, the responses are predictable.

“Oh. Hi, Pastor. We were just talking about how we need to get back to church.”
“Don’t worry Pastor, we are mailing our offerings to the church.”
“I know we haven’t been to church lately, Pastor, but don’t worry, we still pray every day.”
“Pastor, we are still staying home, just to be safe. We don’t go anywhere, except for our doctors, the grocery store, the post office, physical therapy and the veterinarian.”

All I wanted to know was if you’re healthy and have everything you need.

Of course, we in ministry are guilty of the same thing. How often do I tell someone what I am really thinking about them? How often have I dulled the edges of my preaching so as not to offend as few people as possible? How often do I simply keep my mouth shut? It’s a skill you learn early in life and perfect as the years go on.

A lot depends on how you say something. There’s a time and place for honesty, but it’s also important to listen and understand before you speak. I believe you also need to examine your motives. Why are you telling someone something? To help them, or to hurt them? Is it for their benefit, or to make yourself feel good?

And of course, the more important skill is listening. Listening is never a waste of time. I always learn something. And I often hear what I need to hear, not just what I want to hear.

Posted in Moments of grace

Ice water, meal trays and a corpse

When I was sixteen, my mom got me interested in being a volunteer at Taylor Hospital in Ridley Park, PA, where she worked as an RN. It was a different medical world back then, nearly fifty years ago. The nurses all wore white dresses and white shoes, along with caps which identified where they studied nursing. My mom proudly balanced her Philadelphia General Hospital double-frilled cap on her head each and every shift she worked.

The nurses were the caregivers in the hospital. They made beds, bathed patients and changed their gowns, took vitals, dispensed medications, started IVs, changed dressings, and recorded everything by hand on paper charts. They hung glass bottles of IV solutions and took temperatures with glass oral thermometers. There were no aides or techs that I remember. The nurses handled everything.

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Posted in Moments of grace

I think I connected

I had a couple of moments this morning when I knew I had connected with the congregation. The first was during the children’s sermon. As the three little ones watched and listened, I explained to them that I had been painting my son-in-law’s house the previous afternoon. It was really hot, and I thought I might still be thirsty today, so I brought a drink along with me. I then produced a can of Pepsi.

My son-in-law, our praise service music leader works for Coca-Cola, so we avoid Pepsi products like the plague. We rarely even say the P-word out loud. When my daughter, his wife, saw the can she audibly gasped with a huge “OH NO” look on her face. It was priceless!

But I had it all planned. I then produced the outside of a Coke can to cover it up. Then, because I really shouldn’t be drinking soda, I used the outside of a can of Lacroix seltzer to cover that up. You can watch my whole message here.

What was the point? We often try to cover up what we’ve done wrong. But God does a better job of covering up our sin with His forgiveness (Psalm 32). That’s why we confess, or admit what we’ve done. We’ve got the promise of His mercy.

The second connection came about two-thirds of the way through my sermon when I asked, “Did you ever eat something at home and hide the wrapper so no one would know?” I got an immediate chuckle from more than a few of the congregation. Obviously I’m not the only one who does that. We just need to remember that God does a much better job of covering up our guilt.

I can’t always tell if I’ve connected with people on a Sunday morning. It’s a blessing when I know I have.

Posted in Moments of grace, Stories

I’m not going to the hospital

Photo by HH E on Unsplash

It’s been six months. Six months since hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living began restricting visitors. That means I can’t go to the hospital. Or the nursing home. Or the ALF. I cannot go when the phone rings and I hear,

  • “Pastor, we had to call 911. They’re taking him to the emergency room.”
  • “Pastor, I’m having surgery next week.”
  • “Pastor, they moved her to hospice care.”
  • “Pastor, we just had a baby girl!”
  • “Pastor, I haven’t had communion for three months.”

In a pre-2020 — pre-CoVid-19 — world, my weekly schedule would include pre- and post-surgery visits, monthly nursing home rounds, homebound communion visits and emergency room prayers. It’s all part of pastoral care in a congregation. I cannot do any of those things now. It feels like you cut one of the legs off my stool.

A lot of visitation and prayer has been replaced by phone calls. It is a gracious alternative, but let’s face it, it’s not he same. It’s not the same as holding a hand for a prayer. It’s not the same as communion at a bedside. It’s not the same as one final face-to-face conversation. It’s not the same as reading scripture to a long-time friend struggling for every breath. It’s not the same as making the sign of the cross on a forehead while speaking words of benediction.

In the past two months, I have been able to visit some of my members in their homes who feel comfortable with an in-person visit. For many, it is the only contact with another person for months.

Others have decided to wait. For a vaccine. For a cure. For the number of positive tests to decrease. For their family to tell them it’s OK to have visitors. I’m always available, but I always respect their wishes.

This reality leaves me feeling like I’m not doing my job. Yes, you can watch me preach on YouTube. You can watch my bible class. You can pray with me on a phone call. But it’s not the same, is it? Pastoral care was designed to be analog, not digital. In person, not remote. Face-to-face.

In the past I have often sighed as I headed out the door for yet another hospital visit. Now I am looking forward to a quick prayer of thanks for the opportunity to do that again.

Posted in Moments of grace

Should you bring a gun to church?

Photo by Achim Pock on Unsplash

About twelve years ago, a few of the ushers were chatting about handguns a few minutes before a worship service was about to begin. One of them was considering a new purchase, something a little smaller and easier to conceal. Floyd, sitting there listening, raised his pant leg revealing his weapon in an ankle holster and said, “Like this one?” That was the first time I realized that folks in my church came to church with their guns.

The news of mass shootings in schools, movie theaters, churches and other public places has prompted more and more men and women to purchase and carry guns with them for protection and peace of mind. That same news has moved these same folks to bring their guns to church, too. With weapons concealed beneath sport coats and inside purses, I know our worshipers are carrying on Sunday morning. Is that a good thing? Should you bring a gun to church or any house of prayer?

On the one hand, I appreciate having someone watching my back and noticing who comes into the church. We’ve had visitors in church who arrived on bike, carried backpacks, and looked a little nervous as they found a place to sit. We’ve never had a problem with any of them, but they initially made some feel uneasy.

On the other hand, I doubt that many armed worshipers spend much time honing their shooting skills at the range. Law enforcement officers train and certify often. Should a threat arise, I not confident my average attender would be able to pull and effectively fire a weapon. I’m not sure I would want them to.

And anyway, a very small number of shootings have happened in churches. Though such shootings make the headlines, they are few and far between. As they should be, churches are safe places. Church (or synagogue or mosque) violence is disconcerting, but from what I’ve observed, rare.

I do remember that when we worshiped in Haiti, I caught a glimpse of a 9mm on the belt of just about every male worshiper in the building. But in that country there were also armed guards sitting by every gas pump and grocery store entrance. A local guide with an automatic rifle who accompanied every medical mission team like ours from outside the country. I’m thankful for those who watched out for us. I’m also thankful to live where I can fill my gas tank without a guy with a sawed-off shotgun watching me.

I do not own a gun and do not plan on getting one. Right now, I think that any place where I would need to be armed is most likely a place I shouldn’t be going anyway. But a church has never felt like that kind of a place. And if I should be somewhere, even in church, when someone starts shooting, I know I’m not going to be the hero who takes him out.

Posted in Moments of grace

An away game

The Lutheran Church of the Ascension, Atlanta, GA

I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to be the guest preacher at the church of a colleague and friend who was celebrating the tenth anniversary of his ordination. I haven’t preached at a church that wasn’t my own for a long, long time. I think the last time was in Kenya (with a translator) seven years ago. Anyway, it’s a different experience and I thought I would share my impressions of that day. How is preaching an “away game” different than your “home field”?

First, the only thing I had to think about that day was the sermon. I didn’t have to unlock doors, turn on lights and sound system, update my prayers for the day with special requests, or pick up miscellaneous items left around the sanctuary. Show up, preach, talk to folks afterwards. That’s it.

The biggest difference is that I was preaching to a room full of strangers. Other than my wife and my friend’s family, I didn’t know a soul in the room. Every other Sunday in my congregation, I know every face and name in the room. I’ve been to their homes. I know what’s going on in their lives. They’ve shared with me their blessings and their struggles. I know who’s not there. On this Sunday, though, all of that is missing. I have to remember that God knows them all and His Word will indeed speak to them.

Of course, they don’t know me, either. I’m just the designated hitter. They are there because they crave God’s Word and grace. But they are also wondering, “Who’s this guy?” “How long is he going to preach?” And, “What’s for lunch?” (Hey, I’ve sat in the pew. I know what’s going through your mind.)

It did occur to me that I could pretty much say anything I wanted. I would never see these people again. They would never have to listen to me again, either. I even considered asking their pastor, “Is there anything you want me to tell them that you’ve been hesitant to say?” I didn’t go there, though. That’s not why we gather. The better question before a sermon is the prayer, “Lord, what do you want your people to hear?”

One memorable difference about the morning, though, was all the handshaking I did. Now remember, because of Covid-19 precautions and distancing, elbow bumps and “air shakes” have been our practice. However this community had retained the custom of shaking hands. I did so, but also made frequent use of the nearby hand sanitizer. I shook more hands that morning than I have in the last six months!

I also didn’t do a children’s sermon that morning. I always do a children’s sermon or object lesson preceding the sermon. This congregation, however, did not include that in their worship. I missed that, especially when I saw a number of little ones out there.

Overall, it was a great experience. We were warmly welcomed and enjoyed talking with many of the worshipers after the service. Whether home or away, it’s always a privilege to preach God’s Word. And just as He promised, it never goes out without accomplishing exactly what He intended.