The renewal of my mind

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Photo by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

This morning was a little different for me. Rather than two morning worship services, we had just one focused on God’s grace, especially for veterans and local heroes from our fire and sheriff’s departments. It was at a later time, so my Sunday morning began a little later than usual. We had a special guest preacher, too, so I didn’t have to worry about a sermon. I had a rare chance to simply sit and listen, reflect and renew my mind.

Paul’s words in Romans 12 are familiar, but I don’t know that I ever really put my finger on how to renew my mind. But that’s exactly what happened today. In a few moments of quiet, I jotted down a few ways that my mind was renewed today.

  • Since last Tuesday, much of the news in Florida was about the election results and now recounts because the contests were so close. There are a lot of strong feelings on both sides and will continue to be as official results are announced later this week. But worship today reminded me that the Lord is still on the throne. Always has been. Always will be. No recounts. No contest. That truth puts my mind at ease. One less thing to wonder about when I fall asleep tonight.
  • Worship also reorients my thinking from guilt to grace. The pressure to be better and do more comes from within myself as well as those around me. But when we gather as a church family, it’s all about how good Christ is and how much he’s done. It’s a lot easier and refreshing to be myself when the spotlight is on him.
  • The final benediction reminds me that God looks at me with approval. In his eyes I’m not just OK, I’m righteous. That reality helps me think of myself differently, with a renewed mind.

I don’t get that anywhere else. For me, that’s reason enough to want to be with the church each Sunday.

Going to church in an age of mass shootings

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Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

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

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

More worshipers are carrying weapons

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

We now have an emergency plan

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

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

We are better at welcoming guests

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

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

We have a remote alert system

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

We are more thankful than ever for the freedom to worship

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

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

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

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

My greatest fear

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

That’s what frightens me.

 

 

 

An extraordinary Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In your shoes

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Photo by Radek Skrzypczak on Unsplash

For this post I am going to try and put myself in your shoes. The shoes of someone who is a member of our church, who has come faithfully for a number of years, but recently begun to waver in regularity. What is that like, what do you expect, and what’s your vision of the future?

You see, I don’t have that option. Not yet, anyway. I have to be there every week whether I like it or not. Hey, when the preacher is absent, people notice! But one day I won’t be the preacher. I’ll be an attender, a worshiper, a statistic, a member, or whatever.

What if I just stop attending? Will someone call and ask, “Hey, where have you been? We’ve missed you.” Do I want someone to call? Or do I just to be able to do something else? Do I just want to be left alone?

This is such a good question for pastors and laypeople alike. I was taught that you must know who is not there and follow up with them. Absent from worship for three weeks? You better be on the phone or at their door. One more week and they are gone.

But what if those folks don’t want to be called? What if they just want to be left alone? What if they just need a break? I know, I shouldn’t be taking their side. But if I didn’t attend, and didn’t want to get up on a Sunday morning to attend worship, would I want a pastor chasing me down? Some might. I’m thinking many wouldn’t. I’m not sure I would.

Which leads me to my next question. How much time should I (pastors) spend chasing down people who don’t want to come to church? Oh, come on, you know there will always be families and individuals who considers themselves “members” who never actually show up. Are they lost sheep? Or are they not sheep at all?

When the crowds walked away from Jesus, he didn’t pursue them. He wanted willing followers. Some followed him, some who were a part of his flock, some who knew his voice. And some of them had their issues, like Peter and Judas.

At a recent pastor’s conference, I heard a brother say he spent Sunday afternoons going around to the homes of those who hadn’t been in worship that morning. Holy cow. I appreciate your commitment. But I’m not doing that. Maybe I’m not doing my job. So be it. But maybe you are taking yours too seriously. Either way if  the kingdom of God is all about righteousness, peace, and joy, I think we can all relax a little, go out to lunch, take a nap, and let God do the heavy lifting.

Christmas cantata night

24174602_504441229935324_2031369082892135469_nTonight was Christmas cantata night at church. For the last fifteen years (it might be more or less, I really don’t know!) our church choir and a variety of other singers, actors and artists have prepared a special presentation of Christmas music and readings as a part of our Advent midweek worship services. It started with lessons and carols, progressed to a published choir cantata, grew up into a full-scale dramatic and musical presentation, and has pulled back to a more relaxed event the past few years.

Our church is blessed with lots of musical talent, including directors, voices, soloists, and instrumentalists. Of course, we are also blessed with the compelling story of Christ’s birth, one that has been set to many different musical forms. It’s a great night that has become a great outreach event for our congregation as they invite family and friends to come and see what we’ve prepared.

I wasn’t as involved as much this year as I have been in the past. I’ve been in the choir, sang solos, played guitar, acted and narrated. But this year I simply read an adaptation of an archbishop’s Christmas sermon from “Murder in the Cathedral” by T. S. Eliot. My scaled-back part let me focus on a few other tasks these past few months. Youth read scripture, the choir sang a number of pieces, and one solo rounded out the program.

I got to meet a lot of folks I didn’t know, guests of our members. I got to talk to others that I only see at this event each year. Plus I got to watch and listen to the presentation since I didn’t have to remember my lines and pay attention to my cues.

I knew most of the songs and I had been there for the rehearsals, so none of it was new to me. I have to remind myself that many are hearing it all for the first time. Many haven’t heard, read, preached, sang, and acted out the story of Christ’s birth. What would it be like to hear it and reflect upon it for the very first time. What questions would you have? What would touch your heart? It’s good to ask myself that question often anyway, so that I rediscover the impact of God’s word.

The choir really did great tonight. It helped that we overcame some challenges with the sound system and got their monitors working well. The fellowship afterwards was great. So many stayed, talked and got to know each other. Maybe that is part of why this is a popular and important event. People want to connect, they want to hear some good news, and they hunger for more than what the secular celebration of Christmas has to offer.

With just a week or two to catch our breath, we’ll be doing it again, getting ready for the Good Friday cantata. It’s a lot of work, but it’s energy well invested, and a blessing to so many!

Just one

IMG-7655.JPGToday we did something a little different for Reformation worship. Rather than two services with different styles, we had one service utilizing the musical talents from both at our usual later time. The praise team (guitar, bass, piano, vocals) led the first half of the service, and the organ, choir and bells stepped in after the sermon.

As usual, I was a bit reluctant to wade into the logistics of a blended service. I know that some of our worshipers attend one service or the other because of musical style. Others choose to come at a certain time. Pouring everyone into the same bucket means that we’ll be missing some families that day. It also means that some people won’t get to sit in their usual seat for worship, always a source of irritation for Lutherans.

As expected, attendance was down about 20%. We were missing a good number of families who usually come to the early worship service. Five cars pulled into the parking lot for the early service, somehow not knowing that this was the one service week. Despite three weeks of verbal announcements, emails, and text messages, they didn’t get the memo.

On the flip side, the church felt like it was full, we enjoyed the musical talents of all our musicians, and we were once again blessed with God’s gifts of grace. Not all, but most of the babies, toddlers and children were there, which is such a dynamic part of worship. They remind us that unless we become like little children, we’ll miss out on God’s kingdom.

It’s different for me. You see, I go to both worship services every week. I’m OK with worshiping early and later in the morning. I enjoy both styles of worship. I know everyone in the congregation. Each week I get to spend the whole morning there with our families, children, youth and seniors.

Unfortunately, in the back of my mind, I am always aware of the reality that if someone doesn’t like the worship experience, they might not be back. I know it’s not supposed to be that way, but it is a reality in our world and in the church. It certainly doesn’t honor the work of the Holy Spirit in believer’s hearts. It also doesn’t recognize the faith of those who gather not just to receive God’s grace, but to take it with them back out into the world.

Will we do it again? Probably. For some special occasion. Maybe for my last service. Ha! That got your attention, didn’t it?

 

“What will the church do?” (in the aftermath of Charlottesville, VA)

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

In the past few days we have witnessed just how much hatred and anger have been simmering below the surface of America as the still present reality of racism came to a head in Charlottesville, Virginia. It did not take long before questions began to fly. “What will the president (or the governor or the congress) do?” “What will the police do?” And even “What will the church do?”

I find it fascinating that though the church has been marginalized in our culture, it is now called upon to do it’s thing, to do something about what is going on, to appeal to a high authority for reconciliation, justice and peace. Relegated to the margins of community life, we are suddenly needed. A majority of Americans may identify as Christian, yet fewer than a quarter of us actually engage in any kind of worship or other Christian activity in a typical week. Now we are suddenly spoken of as a necessary voice, one that must speak, and one that people ought to listen to.

It’s a good question. What will the church do? Since we are the church, the question easily translates to, “What will we do?” Continue reading

Worshiping in a different language

13001071_10153648825923981_1257256415220592090_nSo about a week ago I found myself worshiping in a different language. On the Sunday after we arrived in Haiti, we attended a worship service at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The service was spoken and sung entirely in Haitian Creole. The extent of my Haitian Creole is a few numbers and colors.

As I sat and listened intently, I was determined to find something that sounded familiar. I kind of knew where we were in the liturgy, so I recognized when they said “Amen” and I heard Jesus mentioned a few times. But that was pretty much it. It was a lengthy sermon, so my mind began to wander a little. I began to wonder if the Gospel is still the power of God for salvation if you can’t understand the language it’s being preached in. Can faith come from hearing the word of Christ in a different language?

I immediately thought to myself, “Of course not.” And just as quickly I thought, “Wait a minute. Is that always true?” What about absolution? Was I forgiven even though I didn’t actually understand the words of absolution the pastor spoke?  This is a mind-bending question.

The converse is just as intriguing. Speaking the gospel in the language everyone understands doesn’t guarantee my audience will hear or grasp the message. I know people have sat through my sermons and wondered, “What in the world is he talking about?”

So, did I receive God’s gifts of grace that Sunday in Haiti? I believe I did, and I am thankful. But I need to do a little more thinking about this.