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.

Posted in Moments of grace

Fifty seconds of prayer

As I finished up my first visit today, I started up the truck to get the AC going and got my phone out of the center console to quickly check my messages and emails. One immediately got my attention. Someone had called the church just after I left and wanted a Lutheran pastor to pray over the body of his mother-in-law who had suddenly died just a day before. I had no details, but the request was somewhat urgent as an autopsy was scheduled and family wasn’t around. I got in touch with the caller and then the funeral home. It would be just me, to say a final prayer of committal, something very important to the daughters.

Just like that, I was done. The funeral director and I thanked each other and I headed out to my next appointment. Before I drove from the parking lot, I sent the fifty-second recording of my prayer to the son-in-law, so he could pass that along to the family.

Later, I typed her name into the search bar of Facebook and found her page. She was my age, a local business owner. Family and friends had already begun to post condolences and memories on her timeline. I reached out to the family, offering my help and encouragement.

Sometimes God punctuates our lives with moments that remind us of the power of His mercy in life and in death. Even if I never hear the rest of this story, I am glad I could be a part of it.

Update: That wasn’t the end of the story. I had a chance to sit down and talk with her husband for a while and then meet all her children the next day to share some memories and say a prayer.

Posted in Devotions, Moments of grace

Each day is a gift

So if I am mortal, my life is finite and the time of my death has been predetermined, does it really matter how I live? While trying to figure out why he was suffering, Job said to God, “A person’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed” (Job 14:5). Is my life really that determined, so that the things I do or don’t do have little to do with my waking up each day?

If I truly believed that, I wouldn’t worry so much about eating healthy or exercising. I can’t add any years to my life, right? I wouldn’t call 911 when I felt chest pain. It’s either my time or it isn’t. I certainly wouldn’t worry about seat belts, speed limits and stop signs, either. Why own a gun? If a shooter’s bullet has my name on it, it’s a done deal. I would be just like Simeon, who had the promise from God that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Christ (Luke 2:25,26). Until that moment, Simeon was essentially immortal!

And yet, most of us don’t live that way, do we? We watch our weight, check our cholesterol, buckle our seatbelts, wash our hands and wear a mask, look both ways before we cross the street, vaccinate our babies, practice shooting at the range and call 911 when our chest tightens up and we (or our spouse) can’t breath. Why is that?

We also share our food with those who are hungry, rather than assuming it’s simply their time to go. We pass laws and commission police to enforce them and protect our lives. We learn CPR and hang defibrillators on the wall so we can save a life. We post signs that warn of high voltage, sharp turns and slippery floors. Why is that?

After forty hungry days in the desert, Jesus and Satan had an interesting conversation. Satan suggested to Jesus that he jump off the top of the temple, relying on the promise that the angels would take care of him and catch him. Jesus refused. Why? Because you don’t put God to the test. Challenging God isn’t trusting Him. He’ll very quickly remind you that He can’t be manipulated. (This is also a good reminder to always check your sources.)

James, a half-brother of Jesus, wisely pointed out that if you come across someone who doesn’t have clothes or food, you don’t simply say, “Have a nice day. Too bad your time is up.” A faith like that is worthless. James used a stronger word: dead. Trusting God means attending to the life-saving needs of others.

Paul wrote, “If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). If you have nothing to look forward to other than death, by all means do what ever you want. It doesn’t make any difference.

But, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20). We’ve been redeemed from an empty way of life by the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18,19). Life, in both this life and the next, is precious and valuable. This truth moves us to provide food, drink, hospitality, clothing, healing and fellowship for the people around us as if we were giving it to Jesus Himself (Matthew 25:35, 36). That is what faith looks like.

I often remind people that we need not fear death, for our last breath in this world will be followed by our first breath in the next. Death has lost its sting because of the resurrection of Christ. We can live each day to its fullest in light of the life He gives us.

I often remind people that life is sacred, too. So from the womb to hospice, we provide the best care we can. Sometimes that means helping moms raise their kids alone. Sometimes it means triple-bypass open-heart surgery. Sometimes it means eating a little less fried chicken and donuts and more fruits and vegetables. Sometimes it means giving someone a room in my house to stay for a while. Sometimes it means washing my hands a few extra times and wearing a mask. Sometimes it means giving away my money so another church in another country can feed the children in a community on a Saturday.

Yes, my life is in His hands. From before my birth to my last breath and for eternity. I commend myself into His hands, my body and soul and all that I have. I remember that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. And I love Him with all my heart, mind, soul and strength by loving my neighbor as myself. It’s never about me. It’s always about Him and them.

My days may be numbered, but I cannot and will not take one of them for granted. Each one is a gift, a gift from Him.

Posted in Moments of grace

Memorials in a pandemic world

I am just now beginning to catch up with some funerals and memorial services. When the pandemic hit, much of life came to a standstill. Death, however, was not deterred. No visits to the hospital, nursing home or hospice house. No visits with the dying. Limited contact with the bereaved. We were not open for worship. No funerals. No memorials. No committals.

As we cautiously reopened our church building for worship, cemeteries allowed a few to gather and families carefully began to travel, I made overdue plans for memorial and funeral services. But it’s different. It’s one thing to gather in the week following a death. It’s another to put it off three or more months. It’s one thing to mourn in person. It’s another to grieve online. Here are some of my experiences and observations from recent events.

Henry’s memorial was the first after we reopened out sanctuary for worship. The attenders were few as many were still cautious about being in a moderate-sized gathering. Watchers, however, were many. Our streaming capabilities were primitive but effective. We had viewers from all over the world. Family and friends from South Africa, London, Jamaica, Hawaii and New York all extended their condolences as we sang and prayed and remembered. We had over 100 comments during the service and many more who watched later. We never would have reached that many in the pre-pandemic world. What a blessing!

Don’s memorial came a whole three months after his death. His arrangements were challenging because we had to coordinate with a national cemetery sixty miles to the south. Once we set a date, some who had planned on coming changed their minds. Others who were reluctant to come decided to attend. We had to rethink some of the music at the last minute, due to illness. But by the grace of God, everything went much better than we expected.

Janey’s memorial is still on hold. We have set and cancelled dates several times. Some do not want to travel and would love a conference-call style service. Others do not want a virtual gathering, preferring to be there in person. I do not know when or how we will get this figured out.

And we have no idea about how to plan for C.’s memorial. Travel restrictions complicate that planning. it’s so hard for the family. They feel like they need to do something. But they also feel like there’s nothing they can do!

I do know that for myself, the mood of a memorial service three or four months after a death is quite different. Yes, there is sadness, tears and grief. But in some ways the memories are move vivid, the obituaries are longer and the shared stories are more detailed. The numbness of that first week of grief has passed, many emotions have been processed and the atmosphere is lighter a few months out. Rather than having to remind folks that life goes on, it’s obvious. Life has indeed gone on.

Three or four months down the road though, it’s starting to feel like old news. We may not all be at the acceptance stage of grief, but many are well on the way. And just when you’re getting close, you have to dig up memories and emotions once again for the memorial service. Some just don’t want to do that.

And of course, the whole worship experience is different. Masks are prevalent. Distancing is practiced. Hugs are few and far between. When all have left, the room is quickly disinfected. The choreography of gathering has changed, and we are all still learning the steps.

But we are gathering. And that is a tremendous blessing. The memories that make us either cry or laugh are so much better when we can share them with others. The smell of the flowers, the collage of pictures and the sound of familiar songs and readings are so much sweeter in the presence of those we love. I doubt that will ever change.

Posted in Moments of grace

The security of a tent

Behold Zion, the city of our appointed feasts!
    Your eyes will see Jerusalem,
    an untroubled habitation, an immovable tent,
whose stakes will never be plucked up,
    nor will any of its cords be broken. (Isaiah 33:20)

I’ve always liked the idea of crawling into a tent for the night. It feels snug. Secure. Even in a rainstorm. Isaiah’s prophecy made me think of some of my tent experiences.

While working at Bell Labs in West Long Branch, NJ, a few colleagues and myself decided to do an overnight century ride through a hilly central part of the state. My friend Ted mapped out a loop that included a place where we could camp at around the fifty mile point of the one hundred mile trip. We each brought a small personal tent and sleeping bag, some cooking gear and freeze-dried food and set out with everything tied to our Blackburn rear wheel racks. Nothing fancy, just what we needed for the night. It was cool to crawl into the two-foot high tent and zip up for the night, then roll it all up and head back home in the morning.

I went along to chaperone two trips to the Florida Keys with my son and daughter when they were in middle school. Their science teacher Mrs. T. led a trip every other year for seventh and eighth graders in a program for gifted learners. The campground was on Marathon Key, just before the seven mile bridge. Each time we took a bigger tent that was pretty comfortable for two people. Another chaperon brought his boy scout troop’s camping trailer, and we set up our own little mess in the center of our little tent community for the week. The most exciting part of the first trip was a tremendous thunderstorm that tore through the campground the morning we were scheduled to leave. We were pretty secure in our tent, but I remember unzipping a few inches and peeking out to see other tents, some still occupied, being blown across the clearing. It was actually pretty funny watching people stumble out into the storm. Thankfully the storm lasted less than half-an-hour, and we were able to pack up all our soaking wet stuff and head home.

I got my first taste of Disney World in the summer of 1994 when our family spent a week doing all the parks. We traveled in my in-laws RV and camped at Fort Wilderness for the week. The RV wasn’t quite big enough to sleep all of us, so my son and I slept in a tent. We had a great time, even though torrential rain showers came through every afternoon. One night the rain waited until dark, and the downpour pummeled our tent. We pretty much stayed dry. The RV, however, leaked! Life can be ironic.

I know we did a tent camping trip to Cape Cod sometime during my first few years in Connecticut. We either had one or two little ones with us. What I remember are the sights and sounds of Provincetown, not unlike the unique folks and lifestyle one experiences in the Florida Keys. The tent, cookstove and lantern were wedding gifts that we still stored in the attic thirty-six years later.

I count our popup camper outings as tent-camping experiences as well. We had a twelve-foot that we pulled with a Chevy Astro van. When cranked up and pulled out, we had plenty of sleeping room for our family of five. We took short trips to the Keys, Savannah, GA and Orlando, FL. Then we took our big trip to Maine, stopping in North Carolina, the Pocono mountains in Pennsylvania, somewhere in the eastern Connecticut hills and finally in Old Orchard Beach and Bar Harbor, Maine. That was a fun trip, even if it seems like we were always setting up or breaking down camp in the rain. Being up off the ground is definitely a more comfortable experience. Coming home we stayed at my parents’ house in Philadelphia and then a hotel somewhere in Virginia rather than campgrounds.

It’s been eighteen years since that trip. We sold the popup soon after. Now we’re getting back into it, sort of. We just bought a hybrid travel camper. It looks like a travel trailer, but the ends fold down to magically create screened-in canvas sleeping areas. It the best of both worlds since it feels like a tent, but also has a kitchen, dining and bathroom inside. I’ve got much to learn about pulling and parking something this big, but a few short initial trips will give me practice before we head out for something longer.

The bible often mentions tents. The tabernacle was basically a big tent. The Hebrew people celebrated the Festival of Booths by living in tents. Jael became a hero when she killed the enemy general Sisera who fell asleep in her tent. Psalm 91 promises no disaster will come near your tent. The apostle Paul worked as a tent maker. Our bodies are referred to as the “tents” we occupy in this life. A better tent awaits at the resurrection. The Word became flesh and “tented” among us.

I’ll be thinking about all that when I once again crawl into my “tent” for the night.

Posted in Moments of grace

Forever? Or just a moment?

It feels like this is going to go on forever.

I know it hasn’t been that long. It just feels like it. This is July. It was back in March when we first became concerned in our community. Churches stopped gathering for worship, restaurants closed, doctors cancelled appointment, nursing homes and hospitals restricted visitors, toilet paper flew off supermarket shelves and we started wearing masks.

It’s been four months. We’re worshiping at church, but at a distance. A few can go to restaurants. I’ve caught up on doctor appointments. There’s plenty of toilet paper but hardly any hand soap at the store. More people are wearing masks. And the news is still mostly about Covid-19. It feels like it’s been four years. I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I wake up every morning to the same news. More people are sick, more people are dying, more people are wearing masks, and more people are angry about wearing masks.

Is there an end in sight? Yesterday I read that most of the research to find a cure or produce a vaccine has yielded little if any results. Those who like to make predictions estimate it will take five to ten years to get past this. If we do at all. It already feels like we’ve been doing it that long.

During a phone conversation today, though, I realized it’s almost been a year since my dad died. A whole year? Already? Those eleven months have flown by. Time is time. It passes at a constant rate. So why is my perception of time so different when applied to different chapters of my life. Why does time sometimes seem so long, like the line to get on the roller coaster, and other times short, like the ride itself? Why do the first hundred miles of a long trip pass quickly, while the last 100 seems to take forever?

Plenty of people have asked that question. How many have come up with an answer? None that I know of. I do know that time passes because I measure it. I watch the clock, I have a schedule, I have events on my calendar and appointments to keep.

Sometimes on my day off, I take off my watch. I don’t worry about the time. And when I do that, time doesn’t bother me, either. On those days I’m never late, I’m never rushed, it’s OK if I have to wait for something or someone. I find that fascinating. It’s like I can step away from time when I need to. I should probably do that more often.