Posted in Moments of grace

Lessons on focus from little ones

Photo by Joe Smith on Unsplash

I got invited to a virtual tea party the other day. I joined my grandchildren in Texas for a few moments as I had a cup of coffee and they ate homemade cookies and drank some tea with plenty of milk and sugar. As I watched them enjoy their afternoon snack, I was impressed by how focused they were on the task at hand. 100% of their attention was focused on eating freshly baked snicker-doodles. I sipped my coffee, chatted with my daughter-in-law, took note of a message that popped up on my phone and tried to snap a few screen shots of our long distance time together. For the little ones, though, it was as if nothing else existed except those cookies.

I am jealous of their youthful ability to focus. I think I’ll enlist them to be my productivity coaches! My world is filled with distractions as I try to get things done. I’m often trying to do too many things at one time. I eat while watching TV, clean while listening to music, talk on the phone while watching the dog. Even though preschoolers can have a short attention span, I took away these lessons on focus from that occasion.

Just have one thing in front of you. They had nothing in front of them except two cookies on a paper towel and a cup of tea. No crayons, books or toys. Just the snack. And they enjoyed every bite. It wasn’t till after they were done that we chatted.

Set a time. The tea party was scheduled for 4:30 pm, so that’s what we did. Block out the time. Put your task on the calendar.

Have a goal. Know what you need to get accomplished. Eat two cookies. Drink one cup of tea. For me it might be writing a certain number of words or making a certain number of phone calls or making a lesson plan.

When you’re done, you’re done. When the cookies are gone, it’s time to play. Or color. Or build legos. Finish one task, then move on to the next.

Be in the moment. They savored every bite and sip. They had just one thing to do: enjoy the snack!

I don’t know how many articles and books I’ve read about focus and productivity. I’ve learned a lot from many sources. But lately, I’ve learned even more from the little people in my life!

Posted in Moments of grace

The value of “I forgive you.”

Photo by geralt on pixabay.com

A few months ago I swallowed my pride and apologized to someone because I had hurt their feelings. I said “I am sorry,” and they replied, “I accept your apology.” I was relieved to hear that and we were able to move on.

Thinking back to that moment, though, I believe there is a difference between saying, “I accept your apology,” and “I forgive you.” Accepting my apology simply receives my admission of guilt but gives nothing in return. But when someone says, “I forgive you,” they have given me a priceless gift.

Forgiveness is costly. God’s forgiveness costs the life of Jesus on the cross. After our confession, the words of absolution, “I forgive you all your sins,” are His precious gift to us. “Apology accepted” would leave me wondering how God felt about all this. Forgiveness, on the other hand, leaves no doubt. We’re good!

In a similar way, when I say, “Thank you,” I mostly hear the reply, “No problem.” When I get a “You’re welcome,” I do a double take. “No problem” simply receives your gratitude as if it were no big deal. I simple “You’re welcome” raises the value of your appreciation.

Maybe it’s not a big deal. But since that moment, I have consciously and deliberately said, “I forgive you” and “You’re welcome.” In a time when I am more likely to hear impatient, angry and abusive words, I want people to know I value and appreciate them.

Posted in Moments of grace

How I learned to value the differences between others and myself.

My vicarage congregation Berea Lutheran Church on E. Oliver Street, Baltimore, MD with our house in the background. Photo is from 1985

I’ve wanted to and needed to write this post for a while, but just had way too many thoughts and questions running through my head.

Racial justice is a big deal. It has been for a long time. I instinctively want to deny any trace of racism in my thoughts, attitudes, words and actions. I want to claim that I do not treat anyone differently because of the color of their skin. But I know that’s not true. I may not even be aware that I am doing it. But I know I am not immune from it.

I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia knowing few people of color. Communities just to the east and west of ours were very different, but we rarely ever ventured there. Glancing through my high school yearbook from forty-five years ago, our football, basketball, baseball and wrestling teams were all white. I heard about discrimination, prejudice and racial tensions, saw a little bit on TV, and talked some about it in school, but that was about as close as I got.

The student population at college was a little more diverse. However my cultural education there came mostly from friends and classmates who grew up in the Jewish faith, which I knew little about. I had a smattering of friends from different cultural backgrounds, but our primary focus on academics blurred most distinctions.

My first job with Bell Labs brought me into a little more of a multicultural setting. My department included a variety of engineers from India, Pakistan and the Middle East. As I struggled to tread water in that sea of genius, I was in the minority as a humble “code jockey.”

A few years later, I found myself at the seminary, making a significant career course correction. Though you’ll find them all over the world, the Lutheran church is predominantly white European and Scandanavian in tradition. I had a few black classmates, but as I struggled to tread water in another sea of genius, this time theological, race was the least of my worries.

And then came vicarage. For those unfamiliar with that term, a vicarage is an year-long internship at a church half-way through residential seminary education. A coalition of ten churches in Baltimore secured a grant to host five vicars a year for three years. Would I be willing to go to the inner city for a year? “Sure, why not?” said this naive suburban white student about to marry a young lady from rural southern Indiana. That’s when it got real.

The two churches we would serve put us up in a row house in a neighborhood where we were the only white people for miles. The only exception was two other vicars who lived next door to us in an adjoining house that year. The house had been burned out during a riot a number of years ago. With a little repair and paint, it was inhabitable. (Note: Were she to describe it, my wife would not use that adjective.) On the other side of our house, across a small yard, was a black Lutheran congregation where I would learn to preach and teach. Across the street was an elementary school attended by at least six hundred children all from black families.

The culture shock was seismic. I was told to wear my clerical shirt most of the time. At that time and in that community, the clergy were held in high regard. Our neighbors knew who we were and why we were there, and they looked out for us. The children quickly discovered our dogs and came over often to run around the yard with them. The sounds of the street lasted into the early morning hours, including music, loud conversation, even louder cars and gunshots. The church doors were shut and locked when it was time to start worship.

It took months to get used to our situation. I felt safe enough to go for a run in the early morning when no one was yet out on the street. We became comfortable shopping in local grocery stores, tasting unfamiliar foods and patronizing local businesses. Having two large dogs made us feel more secure. (Large dogs were also well-respected.) I cut my preaching teeth by preaching every other week while my wife got some experience in social work. I learned much from other pastors in black clergy caucuses whose meetings I attended. I had so much fun tutoring neighborhood children and taking some of the teens to summer camp.

Sometime during that year, something clicked. It wasn’t really racial distinctions we were adapting to. It was life in an inner city. It was life in the south (south of the Mason-Dixon line). It was life in an industrial urban setting. The foods we learned to eat were local blue crabs and oysters as well as greens and sweet potato pie. The choir sang pieces from a rich southern gospel tradition, creating harmonies we never tired of hearing. Not only did we grow comfortable in that setting, but we missed it after our year there was up. I am so grateful for the pastors and people of that community who taught us so much.

We had no idea where ministry would take us. My wife had no idea she would one day be sleeping in a small bug hut on a concrete floor in Haiti, just six months after the devastating 2010 earthquake. We had no idea that we would find ourselves out in the middle of Kenya and Madagascar, sleeping under mosquito nets, eating interesting food, not daring to drink the water and hoping we didn’t have to use the squat pot out back. Each and every time we would reminisce, “If we could survive that year in the city, we can do this!” Each and every time, the people we met and helped were so gracious, so appreciative, and so caring.

To tell you the truth, I think we had a harder time adapting to life at my first church in eastern Connecticut. It took us longer to get used to the New England attitudes and culture, where the population was all white. I also think it was harder to truly feel comfortable at my second parish in Iowa, where life revolved around agriculture. My experience just didn’t equip me to talk intelligently about hog farming, soybeans, hail insurance or commodity futures.

My third and current church in Florida was a refreshing change. The congregation and community was well-seasoned with people from Jamaica, Honduras, Barbados, India, the Philippines, Russia, Germany, Cambodia, Suriname, and Canada. And that just felt right. It still does.

So where am I going with all this? There are times when I feel suspicious or negative about someone whose skin color is different than mine, which some would call a racist attitude. But in such moments I have learned to pause and ask myself, “Why?” Why do I feel that way? What do I really know about that person? Are they in any way a threat to me? Most of the time, they’re not.

More importantly, I’ve learned to ask, “What’s that person’s story?” And, “What can they teach me?” I am grateful for all who have shared their stories and taught me much over the years. Those simple questions do not pretend to ignore the differences but instead leads me to value and appreciate them. Maybe that’s a good place to start.

Posted in Moments of grace

Let’s do a little gardening

“I need some help planting these flowers.”

That’s all it takes. That’s all my five-year old grandson needs to hear, and he’s all in.

Our first project involved a couple of Blue Daze plants which always do great in our garden soil. He wanted to plant blue flowers, which aren’t that common. Even these are a bit on the purple side, which he pointed out to me. He carried the two quart containers out back, while I brought the shovel, some branch trimmers (I knew we’d encounter lots of roots at the base of the pine trees), and a watering can.

He dug the holes as I lopped off some uncooperative roots. I showed him how to take the plant from the pot and shake out the roots a little bit and place the plant in its new home. He filled in the dirt and started to work on the second hole. After we were done, he gave both plants a nice long drink in their new home. Each time he comes over the house, I always remind him to water his flowers.

Our second project involved part of an old whiskey barrel my wife wanted in the corner of the patio, a few bags of potting soil and a twelve-pack of impatiens with orange flowers. The impatiens were a variety I hadn’t seen before, suitable for both shade or sun (according to the label.). I found a few old landscape bricks to take up space in the barrel, and then added the soil. Now the fun part. I pulled back a small hole with my trowel as he stuck each plant in it’s place and covered up the roots with dirt. Once again, we treated our new guests to a tall cool drink.

One of my go to places to relax or destress is the garden. Soil, plants and water are cheap therapy when you’ve got a lot of stuff on your mind. The sun, the breeze and a little dirt under the fingernails always take my mind off my worries.

I think my dad taught me most of what I know about gardening. My dad always had amazing gardens. Front yard beds full of crocuses, tulips and hyacinth in the spring were followed by azaleas and roses as summer approached. Dad’s beds were immaculate, too. No weeds, cultivated soil and gorgeous blooms were the rule in front of our house. The vegetable gardens were out back. Lettuce and spinach first, followed by peas and beans, and then carrots, kohlrabi, peppers and bushels of tomatoes by the end of the summer. His carefully composted rows of vegetables produced much of what we saw on the table throughout the year. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this help keep our family fed during my growing up years.

The gardening gene must be dominant. When we arrived at our first call in Coventry, CT, we planted a garden. And what a garden! Our parsonage was on the four acres next to the church’s four acres. I borrowed a rototiller and broke up a 20′ x 40′ area of the backyard for our garden. If someone tells you that New England soil is rocky, they are understating the conditions. I think we found more rocks that soil! Forget the spade. You need a spading fork. We got it done and planted corn, sunflowers, several varieties of beans (including some that were purple!), peas, carrots, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes and melons. There were also some asparagus beds in place.

My harvests had mixed results. We got some sweet corn, but many ears didn’t properly develop. Some kind of bug ate a lot of the sunflower seeds. The cantaloupe never got bigger than a softball. We had lots and lots of peas and beans, though. Do you know that purple beans will turn green when you boil them? I’d say our attempts were average. We ate a lot of peas right off the vine and had plenty of beans.

We had a garden at our second call in Iowa. Our backyard in West Des Moines had rhubarb. It didn’t matter how cold the winter or how hot and dry the summer, we had huge rhubarb plants. No gardening talent needed there. My wife made some amazing rhubarb and rhubarb-strawberry pies. The soil produced some amazing zucchini, too. We made lots and lots and lots of zucchini bread. Our best gardening project, though, were strawberries. I bought a whole bunch of plants for our backyard, carefully mulching each one. In year two, we began to see some nice strawberries begin to form. That’s exactly when I got the call to Florida. We never got to see how that harvest looked.

Florida gardening? Totally different than up north. After much trial and error, my philosophy is this: plant native and plant what grows in your yard. My soil is crazy sandy, the growing seasons are weird, and plants take over your yard when you aren’t watching. Winter freezes are few and far between. Hurricanes blow in weeds you never expected to find. Plants you gave up on sometimes grow back. Plants that look great in the yard across the street die in mine. Go figure.

When I put my hands in the dirt, I leave something behind and I take something with me. Along with seeds, fertilizer and water, the garden always seems to have room for worries and frustrations. It return it gives peace and serenity along with blossoms and fruit.

Thus, the allure of a shovel, soil and a watering can endures. I can still care for our little piece of dirt, planting and watering and watching things grow. I can still eat the fruits of our labor, share them with others and enjoy the colors of creation.Maybe that’s why gardening is so appealing and amazing. It brings me close to the Creator, reminds me of His creation, and gives me a chance to share that with a new generation. When I’m close to Him, I discover a peace that surpasses my understanding.

Posted in Moments of grace

We went back to church today.

It felt familiar. It felt strange. It felt like home. It felt uncomfortable. It felt warm. It felt cold. It was a morning filled with contrasting sensations.

After seven weeks of “sheltering-in-place” virtual worship, we opened the doors of our church last Sunday morning. For an hour, the distance between members of the congregation shrank from miles to six feet. A thoughtful set of precautions reminded us of the pandemic. Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs reminded us of God’s powerful healing grace.

My mind vividly recalls these sounds and images of our first week back together:

  • For many, getting ready for church includes putting on a mask. Wearing gloves to church? The resurrection of an old tradition! Ushers and elders wore them for certain tasks. I wore them to distribute communion.
  • We did not pass the offering plates. Tithes and offerings were left at the door. Many were given electronically. Some were given by text.
  • We removed all the hymnals, bibles and visitor cards from the pews. Their absence made the church look even emptier. Until the worshipers began to gather…
  • …but the back rows were not filled! We sat on the aisles in every other pew, so many got to experience Sunday morning more “up close and personal” than ever before.
  • The little ones did not race to the chancel for a children’s sermon. I brought it back to them, to the place where they sat with their families.
  • The communion rail remained vacant. One person at a time came forward to stand at the altar and receive the sacrament.
  • My iPhone was perched on a tripod off to the side, live-streaming the service to many who were not yet ready to join us in person. Who knows how many actually worshiped with us on this day?
  • The sanctuary was filled with sound! It wasn’t just me speaking and singing and praying in an empty room. It was dozens of voices together, thanking and praising and praying. It was wonderful.
  • We had first time visitors in worship. The Spirit still gathers His people together.
  • Vigilant volunteers wiped down pews, door handles and chancel surfaces after everyone else left. (The filthy rags revealed we should have been doing this a long time ago.)

I can’t help but wonder if this is the new normal. Will we ever revert completely to how we gathered before? Will handshakes and hugs, kisses and high fives ever return to our assembly? Will we ever feel comfortable sharing books again? Or will we now always be hyper-conscious of the unseen germs all around us?

It’s only been one week. We’re learning as we go. I doubt we will soon forget how something so small can keep us apart. I just hope we never forget that someone so small – “to us a child is born” – can bring us together, too.

Posted in Moments of grace

A little and a lot

I didn’t realize the irony until I hit “start live video” on my phone about 6:45 am on Easter morning, just as the blue began to take over the dark night sky. I hadn’t done a sunrise Easter worship service in over fifteen years. Why? Well, fewer and fewer people showed up for that service. I decided we could skip that service and put more effort into the two later gatherings. Now the number in attendance was zero because we were all staying home to be safe from catching or spreading CoVid-19. And there I was preaching to an empty room!

It’s usually about the numbers, isn’t it? A crowded room of worshipers generates more energy than a sparse gathering. Increasing attendance indicates a successful church. Declining numbers indicate that something is wrong. Empty pews make you start to feel like a coach with a losing record. If no one buys tickets, the circus leaves town, right?

This year, though, none of the rules apply anymore. In the middle of March, we closed the doors of the church as we sheltered in place at home, only going out to buy some food or take a walk around the block. I used the technology of a livestream on Facebook to send liturgy, hymns, prayers and a sermon into the homes of who knows how many as I stood in front of an empty room. I was preaching to no one and everyone all at the same time. And you know what? The numbers didn’t matter. They were irrelevant. I couldn’t tell who or how many were watching.

In a room full of people, other thoughts wander through my head as I lead worship, say prayers and preach sermons. I am constantly wondering, “Where is so-and-so?” Or, “Who is that, I don’t think I know them.” Sometimes, “Oh, that must be visiting family.” Occasionally, “Wow, I haven’t seen them in a long time!” Once in a while, “Where is everyone?” And on other occasions, “This is great! Look at how many people are here!”

None of those thoughts enter my mind when I’m standing in front of an iPhone on a tripod in the middle of an empty room. I’m simply focused on the task at hand. I’m more aware of my voice and my words and my pace. I pause more often. I am immersed in the moment.

That moment is gone. Next Sunday, we will be worshiping together for the first time in seven weeks. We will sit a little further apart and refrain from shaking hands, but our faces and voices will once again fill the room. Rather than focusing my gaze on one small camera lens, I’ll be engaging folks sitting in many different places throughout the semi-circular sanctuary. A camera will still send the message to those who choose to stay home and those who cannot attend.

But I believe the lessons of that moment will linger. I doubt the numbers, high or low, will make as much of an impression on me. But at least I won’t feel like a shepherd without sheep this week. I won’t worry about looking good on camera. I’ll know immediately whether I’ve connected with my audience.

I’m not going to pretend that I will no longer be excited by big crowds and disappointed by sparse ones. I know myself better than that. But I think that like the apostle Paul, I’ve learned a little more about being content with a little and with a lot.

Posted in Moments of grace

A month of phone calls

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

I’ve spent more time in the phone in the past month than I have in years.

Pastoral ministry to a “sheltering-in-place” congregation has been an interesting experience. Generally, over the course of a month, I would see and talk with most of the members of the congregation in worship, bible classes, meetings, nursing visits and visits to those sick or recovering at home or in the hospital. But when everyone, including myself, stays home for six weeks, that whole dynamic of church life is gone.

So I blocked out a few hours of time each day and called just about everyone who affiliates with our congregation, about two hundred families, over the past month. Here are some things I learned in the process.

  • Everyone was doing well! Yes, some had been sick or been recovering from a surgery, but no one had contracted the CoVid-19 virus. Our congregation has been blessed and spared so far.
  • Folks are notorious for not reporting new phone numbers, email addresses and even changes of address. I had to do a little detective work to find some folks, but now our records are up to date.
  • Many were thankful for the chance to chat with someone. The conversation always lasted longer than I expected. And more often than not, all I had to do was listen. For many, the church fills an important social as well as spiritual role in their lives, and they were thankful for a time to connect.
  • More than a few finally dipped a toe into 21st century technology. Some watched their first YouTube video ever when we uploaded holy week worship services. Others dusted off long neglected Facebook accounts to watch livestreams. A few learned how to contribute to the church online. A number finally began to read the weekly email I’ve been sending out for years. A good number learned how to be a part of a bible class via video conferencing.
  • I learned that for the most part, I have a positive relationship with the church family. Most wanted to know how I was holding up. They were glad to hear that I and my family are doing just fine. The majority also expressed their gratitude that I had delayed my retirement for another year.
  • With each call, I asked what they needed and what they needed help with. This first time through, no one had any immediate needs. Most wanted to help someone else. We’ve been very, very blessed.

So now I’m going through the list a second time. It’s been a month, and we’ve got new joys and sorrows, blessings and needs to share!

Posted in Moments of grace

Eleven types of virtual worshipers

Photo by Jud Mackrill on Unsplash

It is indeed a brave new world. While I and most of my congregation shelter at home to avoid a contagious virus, Sunday morning worship has become a virtual occasion. I set up my iPhone on a tripod in the center aisle of the sanctuary, start a live broadcast on Facebook and proceed to lead worship and preach a sermon all by myself. (Well, actually, the organist has been there with me, too.) It’s a marvelous paradox. I am preaching to nobody and the entire world all at the same time.

Normally, on a Sunday morning, I would be preaching to a group of seventy to sometimes over 150 people. I would make eye contact, pause to get reaction, sow stories and reap responses from facial expressions, nods, smiles and laughter. Now, with none of that in the room, I have to imagine all of that in my mind. In some ways its not unlike my college radio days, when I spoke to a microphone in a small electronics-filled booth.

Here’s my light-hearted but certainly incomplete list of those I imagine using my broadcast or upload for Sunday worship until the quarantine lifts and we are back together again.

The Cut-to-the-Chase worshiper fast-forwards to the sermon for instruction and inspiration. Without the surrounding bread of liturgy and prayers, they consume the meat of the morning. These might very well be those who always arrive late and often leave early on a normal Sunday morning.

The All-In worshiper gets up, showers, gets dressed, eats breakfast and tunes in exactly when the broadcast begins. This person fully participates with bible, hymnal and worship folder in hand, speaking and singing along, visibly and verbally responding to the message.

The Must-Not-Smile worshiper is a faithful Sunday morning attender, but simply sits and listens. They do not speak, sing, smile or respond in any way at all. Of course they’re blessed by the experience, but they do so very passively.

The Pause-and-Play worshiper is thankful for a virtual Sunday morning experience. They can pause the service for a potty-break, a drink, a snack, or a coffee-refill (and then another potty-break) and never miss a note of music or word of the sermon. When live worship gatherings resume, you’ll seem them leave and return to the sanctuary several times each morning.

The Responder is also grateful for an at-home time of worship. They talk back to the screen, ask questions and might even openly disagree with the preacher. I can’t hear them but I know they are there.

The Commenter relishes the opportunity to type in their comments during the service. I appreciate the greetings from far away places, the LOLs in place of laughter, and updates on sound and lighting. Unfortunately, once I hit the start button and the service begins, I can neither see nor respond to them until I scroll through them later.

The Anonymous worshiper is of course someone I’ve never met. My service is available to the public, so someone I don’t know may tune and watch some or all of the service.

I believe the Snack worshiper is common. How convenient to be able to sit down with a glass of wine and some cheese and crackers to worship! Put the service up on your big TV and the bowl of popcorn calls from the kitchen. And you don’t have to ever-so-quietly unwrap your piece of candy!

The Child-in-My-Lap worshiper is common, too. Little ones are drawn to screens like bees to flowers, so they love to sit and watch with their parents. For a moment. But, they can get up and down unlimited times and not disturb anyone.

The Multi-tasking worshiper will have several windows open on their computer plus a phone nearby, too. Just in case a message, email or advertisement pops up. If you have to work from home now, you can listen and get some stuff done all at the same time.

The Non-Sunday morning worshipers are in paradise. You can tune in any time you want to during the week.

I’m pretty sure all these worshipers exist because I have consumed spiritual content in all of these ways. So whatever your style is, it’s OK. I’m talking to you!