In our congregation, we celebrate Holy Communion at just about every worship service. Following the words of institution, I say, “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” and then encourage the congregation to share our Lord’s peace with those around them.
In addition to the traditional, “Peace be with you…” “…and also with you,” I’ll witness worshipers embracing, exchanging a kiss, shaking hands, waving and other assorted greetings. Some folks are a little uncomfortable with the moment, unwilling to share germs or give up valuable personal space. Many, I am sure, are not even aware of why we do this. So a member encouraged me to write about this part of the liturgy.
The sharing of the peace is intended to be a powerful reminder of the evening on the first day of the week when the disciples were hiding behind locked doors. Some had seen the empty tomb. Some had seen the risen Christ himself. Suddenly, Jesus is standing there among them and says, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). Powerful words. Through Christ, God has reconciled us to himself. Our sins are forgiven, the relationship has been healed, and we have peace with God.
The real presence of our Lord in the sacrament also brings the peace of the Lord to us, which means we have also received the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). We bring the salt and light of a new relationship with God into our world. God also enables us to pursue and be at peace with one another before we approach his altar (Matthew 5:23,24).
Conflict is inevitable. Relationships are fragile. Feelings are easily hurt. But forgiveness is real. Reconciliation overcomes separation. Love covers a multitude of sins. And as we participate in the body and blood of Christ, we have a lot in common. We are all members of one another. We are his church!
Keep that in mind each time we share our Lord’s peace with one another.
Ants may be some of God’s smallest creatures, but it doesn’t take many of them to cause a major panic in the house of the Lord, especially when they are crawling around on the communion rail during worship service. I didn’t witness them, but I sure heard about their invasion into sacred space!
OK, I’ll grant that it would break my concentration and meditation to feel insects crawling up my arm as I knelt at the altar. I don’t like gnats flying into my ears or buzzing around my eyes, either. Yes, just a few little bitty guys like that can ruin a whole worship service.
Where in the world did they come from? We saw no obvious line marching in from a crack or a window. Fortunately they weren’t fire ants. But then an astute pest control professional/member noticed a stream of the insects from the Advent wreath stand, which had been brought into the chancel for the first Sunday in Advent. The stand had been stored for a whole year in a rear entryway near an exit door. A perfect place to hide away for a while. Until December, when the ants found themselves just a few meters of drops of wine and crumbs of bread. Of course they’re going to go and see what’s going on out there.
But only for a day. We quickly cleaned out their adopted home, the rail and the chancel. Just like the spider we once found crawling up the trays of wine or the lizard who scampered across the altar, we persuaded them to worship outdoors, where they could be just as close to their Creator.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? (Psalm 42:5)
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. (Psalm 42:1,2)
The psalmist puts his finger on the problem when the symptom is discouragement. When you are discouraged, that is, when you soul is “cast down,” you’re thirsty. Your soul is thirsty for God.
Who hasn’t felt discouraged? You might be discouraged because you tried your hardest but failed. Or someone let you down. Someone you thought you could depend on. Discouragement can arise when reality is far less than your dreams. Or when you feel like you’re the only one who cares. I am sure there are a hundred other things that could make you wonder, “Why are you cast down, O my soul?”
In this psalm, we learn that discouragement is a manifestation of spiritual thirst. You know what physical thirst feels like. Dry mouth, scratchy throat, and a craving for anything liquid. Spiritual thirst feels like a horrible terrible no good very bad day.
Here’s the thing: a wonderful successful tremendous very good day will not quench that thirst. Only God can. A soul that thirsts is a soul that thirst for God. Why? Because we screw up and wander so far from Him. Because we forget his promises, take his gifts for granted, trust in horses, chariots and our own strength, and neglect to pray.
So where do you go to get a nice long tall drink of God for your soul? His Word. Prayer. Worship. He’s right there when we gather in His name. He faithfully touches our hearts with His Word. He loves to engage us in conversational prayer. He reminds us of that cooler of water dumped over our head in baptism.
When I’ve had it “up to here,” I just need to stop. Stop trying, stop blaming, stop justifying and stop pretending. Stop and listen to Him. Alone, or with a few, or with the church. Open my Bible and open my heart. What a joy and what a game-changer to drink from His well!
This past Advent and Christmas, I experimented with setting my iPhone in front of the church so that the service and sermon could be on Facebook live. It certainly wasn’t an elegant solution, just easy. Those watching only saw me during the sermon, but they could hear the rest of the service. I figured there is always someone who can’t get out, who can watch and listen and worship with us. They can even watch later since the video is saved indefinitely.
Right after the first of the year, I did a memorial service in our chapel. Some who would have attended couldn’t, so I set up my phone and they got to join us virtually.
So I started setting my phone out on Sunday mornings, too. I discovered that I had an audience. Some were former members who had moved to Wisconsin. Other viewers’ worship service had been cancelled due to a big winter storm in the Midwest. There were some who were sick and stayed home to rest.
I’ve been to churches that had multiple television cameras in the sanctuary to broadcast their worship services. I never thought something like that would be possible with the phone I usually keep in my pocket. Yet here we are, broadcasting live.
A local fitness center closed its doors last week without any advance warning to employees or clients. Just a note on the door saying informing all they were out of business.
This got me thinking. What if you arrived at church one Sunday morning and found a note like that on the locked front doors? I’m not in any way suggesting that’s going to happen. I’m just curious. What would you do? What would I do?
Would you call someone? Who would you call? The pastor? Your elder (you know who your elder is, right?) The president of the congregation? The friends you usually sit with?
Would you stick around and wait for others to arrive? Maybe someone else will know what’s going on.
Would you find another worship service to attend that day? Or would you just shrug your shoulders and go to breakfast? I know that’s sounds kind of harsh. I’m just working through some of the possibilities, even the absurd ones.
Would you make an effort to find out what happened? Did something happen to the pastor? What happened to all the money? Would you contact the district or the synod offices to ask if they knew anything?
What would you do in the weeks or months to come? Would you find another church to attend? Would you band together with other members to reopen that ministry? Or would you feel betrayed and just give up on church altogether?
Even though the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church of Jesus Christ, local congregations do close. And I’ll bet some of them close suddenly, permanently and without notice. And we never even find out why. If you search the internet for info on church closings, you’ll learn that about 100 close their doors every week in our nation.
We all take it for granted each Sunday morning that when we arrive, we’ll walk through the doors and everything will be prepared for us to worship. Have you ever thought about your role in that reality? Or do you leave that for someone else to worry about? What part do you play in making sure that sign is never taped to the front door of your church?
“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.
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?
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!
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.