It is once again a season of growth for our community and our congregation. So, I find myself out visiting a lot of individuals and families who have come to worship with us and expressed an interest in our church. With at least two first-time guests each week, this is keeping me pretty busy and pretty much out of trouble. For now.
In the course of conversation, folks will share their church background and experiences with me, including what their last pastor was like. Sometimes he or she was awesome. But more often than not, I hear a lot of disparaging comments about ministers and ministries. Some of the stories are unsettling, including tales of affairs, embezzlement, addiction and fraud. Others are filled with disappointment, discouragement and disgust.
These conversations always make me feel a little uncomfortable. I do not need to be reminded that every single pastor is a sinner in desperate need of grace. I already know that from personal experience and reminders from those who know me well. I also feel sad as I sit and listen. I’ve had great relationships with a lot of people in the church. I wish more had similar experiences.
The thing that occurred to me the other day was that on any given day, someone is probably talking about me that way. No, I haven’t done anything illegal. But I know I’ve angered, disappointed, aggravated, irritated, ignored, dismissed, insulted, and confused many who have come through our doors. They’re not telling their next pastor nice stories about me. I’m the one who let them down.
It’s good to keep this in mind. It’s humbling. It reminds me not to think too highly of myself. It also sternly reminds me that my self esteem is not built on the failings of others. My worth comes from Christ’s love for me.
I had a colleague who had a very hard time sleeping on Saturday nights. He always lay awake, worrying about Sunday. So he decided to not even try. Sleeping, that is. He would stay up all night from Saturday into Sunday preparing his sermon, and then preach the following morning.
Good for him. I could never do that. I’d be dozing off during my own sermon! That never goes over well. I’ve got my sermon mostly done by Wednesday and go over it a few times sometime on Saturday. Some pastors have a Saturday night service. For me, that would be a drag. My Saturdays could involve any number of things.
Today I worked in the yard, visited a family mourning a death, ran a few errands and got a few chores done around the house. Other Saturdays I have gone to a movie with my wife, performed a funeral, painted a room in my house, played with grandchildren, had some extended family over for supper and built a play fort in the back yard.
My day off is Friday. If you suggest, “How about Friday?” I will typically answer, “No, that doesn’t work for me.” Saturdays however are flexible. Sometimes I had nothing going on. Sometimes my plate is full.
The one thing I never do is discuss the question, “Do you want to go to church tomorrow?” That’s pretty funny. With retirement on the horizon, maybe we’ll have that discussion. But for now, Saturday means I set my alarm for 4:30. Sunday’s coming!
Earlier this week I made all my drop-in homebound visits. Time to move on to my “make an appointment” “spend a little more time” “sit down over a meal” visits. Today I headed out to see Mr. and Mrs. “H”, an appointment I made a few weeks ago, wedged in between many doctor appointments.
I’ve known the “H’s” for about twenty years, and they are my members who live the farthest from the church. They live about an hour drive from the church. For many years they faithfully made that drive to worship with us. But for the last few years, they haven’t been able to attend as often. It’s been eight months since they were able to make the drive.
I remembered the route today, so I didn’t need a GPS to get to their house. It’s a drive through a lot of undeveloped areas of north central Florida. I drove through wooded areas, potato farms. I passed a number of hispanic convenience stores and fern farms, as well as many, many small Baptist churches. Old Florida at its best, as if time stood still. I finally arrived in their small home not far from Lake George, a bass fishing mecca.
Both were actually doing better than I expected. I brought some subs with me for lunch, since in previous visits, they insisted on feeding me. I didn’t think they were up for that, but they still made some strawberry shortcake for dessert. Their little toy poodle was ecstatic to see me, but was relegated to her crate when it was time to get serious.
After about 40 minutes of small talk and extensive medical updates, I did a brief devotion, confession and absolution, and gave holy communion. While they were able to listen to religious programming via the internet, they do not have access to the sacrament, something very important to them. It’s a privilege to bring the means of grace to them.
We had a nice meal together, chatted a lot about possible assisted living scenarios, and caught up on neighbors and church family. One thing hasn’t changed. They have not lost their sense of humor. They never fail to make me laugh! That is their precious gift to me. Of course, I learned long ago that those I go to visit often minister more to me than I to them. They love to hear stories about what’s going on at church and how everyone is doing. I know they miss their church family!
After about two hours there, I thanked them for allowing me to come and headed home. The next time I see them will probably be at a hospital, since some surgery is on their schedule in a few weeks. Visits like this make me realize that some of the most faithful and devout members of a church are rarely able to attend on a Sunday morning. Also, God can create sacred space in the most modest of homes around Word and Sacrament. Finally, my physical presence means the world to them, connecting them with their church family.
It happens a lot. When I get to my study at church on Monday morning, I find that someone left me a message late on Friday afternoon, somewhere in the neighborhood of 4:55 pm. Sometimes the message is important: someone is in the hospital or on the way to the emergency room. Sometimes it’s not urgent at all. A question about the church or even the bible (I really like those questions, but they’re rarely posed).
The thing is, I take Friday off. I’ve taken Friday as my day off for about thirty years. Some pastors take Mondays off. Fridays have always worked out better for me. I like to get a jump on the week on Mondays, and have a buffer at the end of the week before Sunday’s worship and preaching. Saturdays are a wild card day. I may spend a little time at church, or I may have a few visits to make that day. On Sundays, I’ve got plenty to think about and get ready for. My office administrator is there till 1:00 pm on Friday. So if wait until late Friday afternoon to call and leave a message, it may not be heard until Monday morning.
One day I realized that a late Friday message may be intentional. You know no one will answer the phone. You know you’ll have to leave a message. You won’t have to talk to an actual person. You can dump whatever you want, and it’s off your plate and on to theirs. Just like that. I advertise my cell phone and email, and have a broad social media presence, so I know you can get a hold of me in an emergency. But you chose to leave a message on the church phone when no one was around.
I will admit that there have been times when I’ve called someone and prayed that I get the answering machine. That way I could say that I called, but I wouldn’t actually have to talk to the person. Why? Sometimes you just don’t want to have the conversation. Maybe I’ve put off talking to them for too long or I don’t think they really want to hear from me or I just don’t really want to talk to them. But I need to, I’m supposed to and I make the call. But it’s so nice when you can just leave a message.
So I get it. You put it off all week and squeezed it in on a Friday afternoon. Or you waited till late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve to call and ask when services were. Or you were in a hurry and didn’t even identify yourself so I don’t even know who called.
Our county school board recently opened a meeting with an invocation by one of the local clergy. From what I’ve read, this was the first time a prayer was spoken at such a meeting since the early 1970’s. After much conversation and conflict, they decided not to continue that practice.
I remember being asked to give the opening invocation at a high school graduation in Coventry, CT in about 1989 or 1990. Another local pastor spoke a benediction. It was the only time I was ever invited to pray at such a school function. It was certainly a different time and place. I’m not aware of any non-Christian religious organizations in Coventry at the time. Any prayers offered from representatives of the local churches would be from a Christian perspective. Today, you might get a prayer from any of a wide range of faiths in the community that you may or may not be comfortable with.
I also had the opportunity to give the opening convocation at a session of the Iowa state legislature in the mid-90s, when I lived in Des Moines. the senior pastor of our church handed it over to me, and I thought it would be a great experience. It was. Afterwards, I received an impressive certificate signed by the governor of Iowa and my representative. The only comment I received that day was, “Thank you for keeping it short.” Apparently, not everyone invited to pray got to the point as quickly as I did.
I was also invited to pray before an after a special gathering of a garden club in our town last year. They were planting a tree in memory of some members who had passed, one of whom had been a member of our church. My words were overtly Christian, cause that’s what I do, but no one seemed to mind.
I’ve heard invocations at a variety of university and government functions. Unfortunately, they are so watered down in order to include every belief that I don’t think God Himself would even know we were talking to Him. So why even bother?
I believe it is much better for us to pray for our nation and government each week when we gather for worship. I believe it is important to thank God for our leaders in our own personal devotional prayer. I believe it is much more important to teach our children to pray and be good citizens of both heaven and the United States. It has been a privilege to gather with teachers and students around school flagpoles for prayer. I am thankful for the chance to teach children about prayer in the school at Good News Club each week.
If we are taking advantage of the many opportunities we have to talk to God, we won’t have to worry about trying to wedge one into a community meeting. Plenty of them will have already risen before Him like incense.
At last summer’s synodical convention in Tampa, the exhibitor hall was a great place to escape some of the long business sessions and presentations when my brain and bottom just couldn’t endure any more. Every Concordia was represented along with every shape and size of ministry at home and abroad.
One morning I stopped by a booth promoting a ministry to Jewish people. I don’t remember the name of the ministry or the person I spoke with, but I do remember speaking about the time Steve Cohen came to my congregation to do the presentation Christ in the Passover. I then shared how years later I had met Clara Reuben, who did some amazing Jewish outreach on Long Island and in South Florida.
At the mention of her name, his face lit up and he exclaimed, “I know Clara Reuben!”
What a small world! Clara was the great-grandmother of one of my confirmation students. I visited Clara a number of times during the last year of her life when she lived in my town. I was privileged to be one of the few Clara never expelled from her home. Clara began every visit by asking, “Do you love Jesus?” She would always tell me, “I kicked the last minister out. He didn’t love Jesus!” And then she would double-check, “Do you love Jesus?”
Of course I do. But more importantly, she did. No nonsense here. No political correctness or cultural sensitivity. You either love the Lord or not. No pussy-footing around. Just cut to the chase. Either he’s Lord, or he’s not. Got a problem with that? Get out!
We could all learn a lot from Clara Reuben about outreach, evangelism and faith. I know I did.
I saved the lion’s share of my visiting for Wednesday and Thursday this week. My rounds included a hospital, two nursing homes and one family’s residence. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, but at the end of the day, I have to admit I was weary. As I reflect on the day, I can’t help but wonder why. I got plenty of sleep the night before (about 8 hours) and ate well. I exercise and am fairly fit. But I didn’t do anything physically demanding. Why was I so tired?
When I left my study at church, a crew of seven was tearing out and installing huge new AC units for our sanctuary. When I stopped home for lunch, a crew was reroofing my neighbor’s house across the street. My wife was working a twelve-hour shift in the hospital ER. My daughters chased their toddlers around all day. They all had plenty of reason to be tired at the end of a shift. Me? Not so much.
Yet I still felt a different kind of fatigue, one that still surprises me. It’s a spiritual weariness, one that follows a day of preaching, teaching or in some way caring for people. It isn’t something that’s easy to put your finger on, but it’s real. A tired spirit is just as real as a worn-out body or brain.
My first visits took me to the hospital. I didn’t know how these folks were doing, so my half-hour included prayer for them and thoughts about them. by the grace of God, both were doing really well. In fact, the first one was doing better than he had for a long, long time. His relaxed smile and clear speach filled the room with hope. Though completely out of context, his wife shared the story of how they met some sixty years ago. My visit was about twenty minutes and my prayer was filled with gratitude.
One floor away, another was recovering from successful surgery, and was looking forward to going home in the next day or so. He and his wife also spoke of their sixty years together and an upcoming cruise they had to put off for a few months. This conversation also lasted about twenty minutes, concluding with a thank-filled prayer.
From here, it was on to a nursing home. I stopped at the front desk to get the room, but when I walked into a large common area, I spotted them as she finished up her lunch and he sat there chatting with her. In the course of the conversation, I learned that he had been working on long term care arrangement for his wife, who really wanted to go home. I could see the pain on his face as he hinted at what was to come. When she finished eating, we went to her room and I read scripture, gave them communion, and also prayed, thanking God for the good care she was receiving there.
My final visit yesterday was at a another nursing home, but she wasn’t in her room. I couldn’t find her in any of the common rooms, so I just left a flower arrangement from church in her room. I would have to try another time on another day.
I had one visit today at a member’s home. He slept through most of it while she and I caught up on all kinds of events in their lives and mine. She spoke of many challenges and a few glimmers of hope. He woke towards the end of my visit so I could also give them communion.
So what did I actually do? I sat and listened. I read a few verses and prayed a few prayers. No big deal. Or is it. Caring for souls is no small task. In my role as pastor I get invited into the lives of families who are dealing with significant changes and challenges. When they share some of their burdens with me, I help them shoulder some of the load. They will not have to carry them alone. I freely share with them the hope I have received from God, too. I may not have all the answers, but I give them what I have.
I guess over the years I’ve learned what helps me rest and recover from such days. I find that gardening or working in the yard, cooking a meal or playing with the grandkids recharges me. These simple tasks and precious lives reconnect me with the one who takes all my burdens and gives me all that he has.
So, if I weren’t a pastor and I went to a church somewhere, what would I expect of the pastor?
I think that’s a heck of a question, one worth asking from time to time when I wonder where my time went. Am I doing more than I need to do? If so, then why? How much time am I spending on unimportant tasks? Why am I doing that?
OK, here is my list. Yours may be different, but that’s OK.
I would expect the pastor to proclaim God’s Word to me. Preach the word. What is God saying to us through his word right now? I expect that the pastor has studied and prepared some good news for the congregation from scripture.
I would want the pastor to be a regular person. Wife, kids, hobbies, joys and frustrations. If I stop by his house, it’s not perfectly kept. If he comes to my house, he’s right at home.
I would want the pastor to baptize, marry, and bury those whom I love. In those very special, emotional moments, please remind me that God is a part of those moments, too.
I would want the pastor to project grace. I don’t need someone to tell me what to do or how to do it. I already have plenty of people in my life who do that. But grace is hard to find. Maybe the pastor can bring it.
That doesn’t sound too tough, does it? Yet, when you are the pastor, you feel like everyone expects a whole lot more from you. You feel like everyone is expecting you to
keep the church sanctuary at a comfortable temperature
go after those people who don’t even want to be a part of the church
make people behave better
tell people how they ought to vote at election time
visit people in the hospital who didn’t tell you they were in the hospital because they thought somehow you knew
perform a funeral for someone who never came to church but was a pretty good person most of the time
conduct a wedding for a couple from out of town who wanted to be married on the beach because you live at the beach
remember who can’t drink wine, eat gluten, or likes to drink from the common cup
I don’t know if everyone really expects those things. It’s just that I think people expect those things. We should be able to reach a compromise here. If you expect grace and I expect grace then I can let go of many expectations and simply give you the best gift of all. Grace!
I felt compelled to mention here that yes, for better or worse, I write all my own sermons. (I wonder how many think I don’t?) I once ordered a kit for some midweek Lent worship services that included bulletin covers, liturgies, and sermons. Even though I liked the themes and some of the ideas, I had to rewrite all of them. They just didn’t sound like me and needed to be adapted for my specific audience. I didn’t waste my money on any more kits.
It never occurred to me that pastors wouldn’t write their own sermons. My seminary professors — from the historical, exegetical and systematic departments as well as homiletics — spent a lot of time preparing us for the pulpit. Then again, I did have a colleague when I was of several pastors at another church who received some kind of subscription of sermon resources. He never shared them with us, so I don’t know how much he drew from them.
I may pick up some ideas, themes, titles or illustrations from stuff I read, but I have to shape them into my own words. Otherwise, it just doesn’t feel natural. I don’t even go back and use sermons I’ve written in the past. Although I have copies of just about everything I’ve written, I never like them as much as the new material I write.
Yes, I write my own sermons. And just in case you’re curious, here’s the process I generally follow each week as I prepare for a Sunday morning. It’s not a hard and fast schedule, just a routine that works for me.
Monday On Monday morning, I read through the texts for that day (Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel) and decide which one I will preach on that week. I’ll work through that passage mostly in English to come up with a title and basic outline of what I want to say. I usually use the “Lowry Loop” to accomplish this, since it moves my thoughts towards a goal or a “so what” for the week.
From time to time may preach a topical series of sermons, for which I pick the biblical texts. In the past I’ve preached series on the Great Commission, Tearing Down our Idols, Watching Your Mouth, Stewardship, Witnessing and lots and lots of Lenten series.
Tuesday On Tuesday, I’ll work on the passage again, checking other English translations and looking at the Greek or Hebrew to see if there are any interesting words or phrases that catch my attention. I try to anticipate any questions the hearer might have, too. I may look at a commentary to learn more about the passage’s context and interpretation, too. I like to have my introduction and conclusion figured out, too.
Wednesday On Wednesday, I put the sermon onto Keynote slides which will help me remember. I don’t write out the whole sermon but use bullet lists on each slide. My sermons will generally be eight to twelve slides. I style each slide to be more of a story at this point, and put a picture with it, reminding me to show not just tell. It’s also a great mnemonic device.
Thursday Thursday is practice day. The pictures on each slide will be mentally slotted into rooms in my house, which easily helps me remember each one. Then I practice the sermon out loud several times in the sanctuary as if it were Sunday morning.
Friday Friday is my day off, so I try not to work on church stuff at all.
Saturday (and Sunday) Sometimes I’m off on Saturday, sometimes I have stuff to do. But I will always practice the sermon once before bed and then once more early Sunday morning before anyone else arrives at church.
Granted, that’s an ideal week. Some weeks the sermon comes easily and is done early. Other times I feel like I’m Jacob trying to wrestle blessing from God and I’m actually still working on it on Saturday. But it’s always worth the effort. Most days I’ll block out a couple of hours to work on my sermon. Sometimes I have less; sometimes it takes more. Bottom line: it’s not really a message worth preaching unless it has touched my own heart. Then it’s ready.
And actually, the sermon isn’t ever done until I’ve preached it to the congregation. It’s always a little different in front of a live audience. The sermon writing task is rewarding, frustrating, stimulating, agonizing, frightening and exciting all at the same time. Sometimes I hate my sermons. Other times I love them. I can put people to sleep. Other times I can wake them up. Such is the preaching task and the power of God’s Word!