A smile!

I did it. I coaxed a smile out of my youngest grandchild Daniel today. I wasn’t the first to do that, but it was the first time for me.

As I reflect on that, I think it’s pretty amazing. I’m not absolutely certain, but I think smiling is an acquired skill. While we’re born with the muscles to smile, we have to learn how to get the corners of our mouths to turn upwards. And we do! At some point our eyes begin to focus on the face in front of us, a face that is smiling at us, and we imitate them as best we can and just like that, we’re smiling!

I enjoy making people smile. Sometimes it’s easy. All I have to do is look at my youngest daughter and she not only smiles but breaks into laughter. Other folks are harder. Some who hear my sermons, which usually include at least one humorous line or story, will not crack a smile.

What is it that makes me smile? There’s the usual — a funny story, certain bodily sounds, a silly face, puppies, finishing up a task, a package at the door, a check in the mail, a clever idea that pops into my head, finding some money in a pants pocket. When someone smiles at me, it’s hard to not smile back.

me and danielAnd of course, a baby. Even before they learn to smile, they make us smile. And then they learn how to smile from us. Isn’t that amazing.

Just thinking about that makes me smile.

 

I was just reading to you

YertleA few months ago, I had the privilege of holding my newest grandchild, Daniel, just hours after his birth. He was swaddled snugly in a dinosaur-covered blanket, sporting a matching cap. I quickly accepted the offer to hold him and said the first thing that came to my mind. “I was reading a story to you yesterday, remember?”

Less than twenty-four hours before, I had sat down to read one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books to Daniel’s big brother, Elijah. Elijah soon lost interest and galloped away to do something else. But his mom, exactly 40 weeks pregnant with little brother was also sitting on the sofa, slowly rubbing her belly. So I kept on reading Yertle the Turtle, delighting as the precarious tower of turtles collapsed, leaving Yertle with a kingdom of nothing more than the mud into which he fell.

As I chatted with Daniel, I paused to marvel at all the voices I the world that he would recognize. His mom and dad, of course. His big brother, grandparents, and a few aunts and uncles. On more than one occasion, I would stoop down and “talk to the tummy.” Those on the outside would roll their eyes as I asked, “What’s your name?” “When’s your birthday?” and “Whatcha doin’ in there?” I like to believe Daniel merely thought, “Don’t worry, Apa, I’ll let you know soon!”

I like having conversations with little people. Even before they can respond with words, I can tell they are listening very carefully. Sometimes they’ll respond by looking deeply into your eyes. Or they’ll twist their mouth into interesting little shapes. They squint when you blow in their face and say, “It’s windy day!” And sometimes they look excited as you move their legs to make them run as fast as they can or move their arms to make them dance.

I love to read stories to kids, especially my grandchildren. I like to think I’m pretty good at it, too. In fact, I like to believe that story got the show on the road. A few hours after “the end” the contractions began. I think my young audience wanted to see the pictures that went along with the story!

I didn’t expect to see the sunrise this morning

43350742801_c739ce7199_oSomeone who didn’t think they’d live through the night might have written those words. Or someone who rarely woke before the sun was high in the sky. Or maybe someone for whom it seemed their world has come to an end.

That’s not why I wrote those words in my journal a few weeks ago. As I sat with my early morning cup of black and looked out over a series of hills stretching out into the distance, a tiny spark on the horizon caught my eye. There was no “smoke” on the Smokies this morning, giving me a rare chance to see the summer sunrise.

I watched as the painting in front of me changed before my eyes, like an artist retouching the colors on a canvas. In just a few minutes, that glint of orange grew to be the full orb on its way across the sky.

I figure I’ve actually lived through a little more than 22,500 sunrises in my life time. So I take them for granted. I never go to bed not expecting another. And I’m never disappointed. The next day always comes.

Maybe I shouldn’t take the sunrise for granted. Maybe you shouldn’t, either.

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Livermush

livermushScanning the breakfast menu in the small North Carolina restaurant, I paused for a moment at an unfamiliar word in the menu. Livermush. Along with eggs and biscuits, you got to choose bacon, sausage or livermush. Interesting. At first glance it looked like the name of a Chronicles of Narnia character.

I did some quick Google research and discovered why I had never heard of livermush. It’s a southern dish, especially treasured in North Carolina. I’m a Yankee so I hadn’t ever encountered that stuff. Where I come from – not too far from the Pennsylvania Dutch — you eat scrapple. They are basically the same. When Mary Rizzo writes about the recipe in the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, she explains, “While parts of the pig became sausages or bacon, the rest, ‘everything but the oink,’ was collected for scrapple.” It was boiled up with sage and pepper, then thickened with cornmeal and buckwheat. Once it cooled into a loaf, you slice off a piece to fry up in a skillet. In the south, they threw in pig liver to make it a bit more palatable. In Ohio, oatmeal was used in place of corn meal, and it was called goetta.

scrappleWe didn’t eat scrapple all the time growing up, but often enough that I remember it well. My dad must have liked it. Of course, he also relished pickled pigs’ feet, sardines packaged in tins of oil and mustard that he would spread on a slice of buttered bread, and a vegetable he grew in his garden called kohlrabi. Thank goodness mom only worked as a nurse on the weekends. When my dad cooked, kohlrabi often made it to the table.

eggs and livermushYes, I ordered livermush that day with my scrambled eggs and it was almost as delicious as a fried slice of Habbersett Scrapple from the A&P (or from Friends restaurant in Flagler Beach, FL, who import some from Philadelphia each week). I offered to share, but few at my table dared to try a bite.

 

Another last visit

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Photo by Justin Schüler on Unsplash

I got the phone call last Tuesday just before I headed out the door to visit some church members. But it wasn’t the person whose name showed up on the screen. It was her daughter. Mom wasn’t eating, couldn’t get out of bed, and was receiving twenty-four-hour hospice care. I knew I had to get out there later in the afternoon before they started a second form of medication to get ahead of the pain. It would probably be my last chance to talk with her.

When I arrived I thought, “This must be the place to be.” The driveway and cul-de-sac were full of cars. Inside, I was met by the hospice chaplain, the daughter, and two other hospice workers were in the kitchen. The only thing that surprised me was the quiet. The little Yorkie didn’t come barking to greet me at the door. Yes, this was a different visit.

Just six days before, I had been to this very same house. When I knocked and walked in, the dog came racing to find out who it was and got dibs for my attention. Inside, P. was sitting on the pale green living room sofa, waiting for my arrival. We talked and laughed and caught up on all that had happened since my last visit about a month ago. She was tired from a busy day before, but glad to have some company.

As the usual afternoon storms rolled in, the Yorkie found a secure spot on my lap, nervously shivering after each clap of thunder. She wasn’t going anywhere.

She wasn’t going anywhere during this latter visit, either. Lying quietly at P.’s feet, she was subdued though glad to see me. I can tell. And I know exactly where to scratch.

After a quick conversation with a daughter and the hospice chaplain, I went to the bedroom, where P. was now camped out, on oxygen, wondering when the pain medication would do more than make her feel sleepy. At the side of the bed was a picture of her late husband, whose hospice bed we had sat beside just eleven months ago. It was his retirement picture, signed by all of his colleagues. In a way it was his chance to repay the favor and sit by her bed.

P. had a smile for me and chuckled, “Well, here we go. Not a pretty picture, huh?”

“Looks like you had a rough weekend,” I said.

She said, “Yeah, but what are you going to do?”

We talked a little about how she felt, between sips of ginger ale. Since she was starting to doze off, I didn’t hesitate to ask, “Would you like communion?” As always, she said, “Yes.” As I got the bread and wine ready, I suspected it would be the last time I would bring the sacrament to her. As I spoke the words of our Lord, she closed her eyes to listen. I touched her hand, she opened her eyes, and ate and drank her Savior’s gift of grace and life. I assured her of God’s forgiveness and we prayed.

It is easy to pray in situations like that. We thank God for the care he provides, we commend ourselves into his hands, and speak the prayer our Lord taught us. A quick benediction, and I knew it was time to go.

I got the call Thursday night that she had died after a few days of being unresponsive. I was thankful for the opportunity to visit her that one last time.

Two years ago, I did a memorial service for P.’s mom. Last year for her husband. And now it will be her turn. I am impressed and moved by how she graciously handled both life and death, kind of like Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 4: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9). The worst this world dishes out is nothing compared to the grace God pours into our lives. I am thankful for people like P. who lived out this truth.

The only thing P. worried about was her two grandsons. How she loved them and how they loved her! I wonder what they’ll remember the most about their grandparents. Knowing them and the family, it will be something that brings joy not sadness, and that’s just the way it should be.

The Yorkie didn’t see me out as she usually did. She had work to do. And I understood,.

 

 

 

 

The pros and cons of reading an analog Bible

img_9267.jpgBy analog, I mean a Bible printed on paper rather than the (digital) bible app on my phone or computer. I’m thankful for each. I also thankful for having the Bible at my fingertips in any of its forms. Remember, just five hundred or so years ago, virtually no one read the Bible. Until the Reformation and the invention of the printing press, few actually had one.

On my phone, I usually read from my Accordance app. On the computer, I also have Accordance, and I’ll often go to Biblegateway.com.

Anyway, here are the pros of an analog bible:

  • You can underline, circle, highlight, make notes, and draw pictures on the page for future reference. I can’t do nearly as much marking on my phone.
  • It’s easier to catch the context with a couple of pages right there in front of you. Scrolling through the text on my phone is more difficult.
  • Spill coffee? No problem with the printed version. Panic time with a phone. With an analog bible, it’s a badge of honor. Yep, I was up reading my bible this morning while I was drinking my coffee.
  • It’s easier to focus. My analog bible never interrupts my reading with texts, weather alerts, or phone calls. Yes, I could turn all those off, but I rarely do.
  • It slows you down a little. It’s good to slow down and think about what I’m reading. I can read much faster on my phone. I set the font larger, so there are fewer words on the page, and I can really zip along as I scroll through a passage or book.
  • I can actually look up passages more quickly with a printed bible.
  • No one has a problem with someone paging through a bible in church. Everyone is suspicious if you claim you are using your phone’s bible app in church!
  • Battery life is never an issue with an analog bible!

The cons of using the analog bible are also the strengths of the digital form:

  • It’s slower. I can read on my phone much faster. When I want to, I can really cruise through scripture.
  • With a printed bible, I don’t have the resources at my fingertips that are on my phone or computer. In the digital world, I can immediately see a word in the original language, read a passage in another translation, find a word or phrase in other verses, read a commentary, find out where a place is, or find out who a person is. I can find all that info in some books I have, but it takes a lot longer. A study Bible is helpful, but I can’t fit it into my pocket.
  • I like a larger print bible now, and they aren’t as easy to find as the ones with minuscule font on extremely thin paper. The footnotes and cross references are even smaller. On my phone, I can really ramp up the text size so I almost don’t need my glasses.
  • After a while, all the pages are marked up, stained, folded, torn here and there, and falling out. Some pens and highlighters bleed through the pages. It takes a while, but it eventually happens to all my bibles. I never have to duct tape the binding of a digital bible.

So, for me, it’s a tossup. It depends what I am doing. I always use an analog bible for preaching, teaching and visits. I always use a digital form for preparing sermons and bible classes. I use both for my daily devotional reading.

That’s one of the things that has changed in ministry. When I started, everything was in a book. Now just about everything is online. In act, I can even have Alexa or Siri read the bible to me! Pretty cool.

 

Father’s Day advice

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Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

Father’s Day is in two weeks. I am writing this post partially in response to a TV commercial I just saw while working out while watching some UFC on TV. Yes, my wife is at work, so any channel is fair game.

Anyway, the commercial was for the WeatherTech Ready-to-Wash System. This is a Father’s Day gift of a bucket on wheels with some car wash soap, a mitt and a towel. Really? You love your dad so much that you will just get him something to clean up the family SUV? Oh, come on. Like you would get your mom a vacuum cleaner or a gift basket of Pledge, Lysol, and Fabuloso for Mother’s Day? Yeah, you’d be out of the will for that, big guy!

I’ve decided to do you all a big favor and steer you away from terrible Father’s Day gifts and get you on the right track for the guy who flips your pancake. (I made up that euphemism.)

First of all, a few gifts to avoid:

  • The RadiaShield Men’s Boxer-Brief. Supposedly, this guy-hugging apparel will ensure your guy’s swimmers will make it to the finish line. As for me and my house, I cut them all off at the pass. Pass.
  • T-shirts, mugs, hats, key fobs, whatever, proclaiming me to be “The World’s Best Dad.” Since there is no real prize for that honor, I’m not interested. Besides, it just sets me at odds with my neighbor whose boxers proclaim the same honor.
  • I heard some DJs talking about A1 Steak Sauce scented candles. One commented, “Could be a good Father’s Day gift!” No. Just no.
  • Father’s Day cards that focus attention on our flatulence. Yes, we’re pretty good at that. And we are proud of it. But is that the only superlative you can think of for your dad? (My suggestion: Make a card. Write a quick poem. A limerick. Haiko, You’ll do better than most of the cards at the store. Trust me.)
  • Honorable mentions to avoid: A crazy tie, personal hygiene products (remember: would you get that for your mom?), an exercise program (remember: would you get that for your mom?), flowers (oh, come on!)

What to get instead:

  • Bourbon or scotch (you should know what your dad likes!)
  • Craft beer (you should know what your dad likes!)
  • Sunglasses (you should know what your dad likes!)
  • Sandals (you should know what your dad likes!)
  • Beef (try butcherbox.com)
  • Something to do together (movie, supper, fishing, drinking whiskey, eating beef, sitting on the beach; you should know what your dad likes!)

OK, I confess, I received a Shop-Vac for Father’s Day 22 years ago and I still use it today and I still really like it. OK — long shot and you won. But you were a looker, and I was a sucker. Still love you, too. And I still love my Shop-Vac.

Just a whisper

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Photo by London Scout on Unsplash

And [the Lord] said [to Elijah], “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

I have long been fascinated by this moment in the prophet Elijah’s life. He’s ready to give up and pack it in. He’s not just ready to retire. He wants to die. God’s says, “I want to talk to you. Climb up that mountain over there.”

Then, rather than manifesting himself in a tornado, earthquake or wildfire, God speaks in a low whisper. The literal words are a “thin silence.” So I’ve been wondering, would I rather hear God shout or whisper?

On the one hand, God’s powerful entrances are traumatic. When God finally shows up to answer Job’s questions, he speaks from a whirlwind (Job 38:1). Suddenly, Job doesn’t have any more questions (Job 40:5)! When the earth literally shook at the base of Mt. Sinai because of the presence of God, the entire nation backed away (Exodus 20:18). When the people were bemoaning their life in the desert, the fire of God began to consume the outskirts of their camp (Numbers 11:1).

On the other hand, the power of God is transformative and empowering. When the sound of a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire accompanied the arrival of God’s Spirit, the apostles suddenly became bible translators, preaching in the language of the international crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-4). When the early church prayed, the house shook as the Spirit gave them the boldness to keep speaking about Jesus (Acts 4:31). In the extra hot fiery furnace, Daniel’s three friends were joined by the Son of God rather than being consumed (Daniel 3:19-25).

When our children were still at home, there were moments when I would raise my voice and they (or my wife) would say, “Don’t yell!” So I would turn up the volume and reply, “I haven’t even started to yell yet!” That’s when they would put their hands over their ears.

Yes, there are times when God needs to get my attention. Turn up the volume a little. Even yell. Because I’m not really listening. I might even have my hands over my ears.

Yet there are other times when I’ll say, “What was that, God? Say that again. I’m having a hard time hearing you.”

If God is in whisper mode, you have to pay attention. Listening is hard. You have to stop talking, turn off your mind, get rid of distractions, and let the Scriptures speak. Read slowly, deliberately, without a goal or an agenda. Read out loud. Read it like it was the first time you’ve ever gazed at those words. Imagine you are there when the events happened, the words were first spoken, or when they were first heard. Don’t listen to respond. Listen to what He’s saying.

Though God reveals himself in many powerful ways, he chooses to reveal himself, his love, his grace, and our future through word. Words I understand, words I can remember, words I can repeat. If a whisper gets me to listen, all the better.

 

 

The strange journey of confirmation class

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My most recent confirmation class.

In the life of our church, we baptize most of our children as infants and then raise them in the Christian faith. When they are eleven or twelve years old, I get to teach them the basics of the faith in a systematic way, using Luther’s Small catechism as a guide. After two years of weekly classes, we gather with family, friends and congregation for a “confirmation” of the blessings of their baptisms. That day is a reminder of God’s faithfulness as well as a public confession of their faith. My goal is to provide some tools and encourage them to continue to grow in their faith as they enter their high school years.

I believe I have taught thirty-two groups of middle schoolers. It is a fascinating, only-by-the-grace-of-God journey.

I enjoy teaching this age group because they have so many questions. Late-elementary aged children and high school students tend to think they have all the answers. But in middle school, you’ve learned to ask questions.

I also struggle to teach this age group because most of their parents haven’t done much with them since their baptisms. They may have come to some worship services or been in a few Sunday School classes. But on their twelfth birthday, an alarm goes off, and parents insist, “We have to get you to confirmation class!” Few students are familiar with – and some haven’t even heard of – basic stuff like the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles Creed and the Ten Commandments. Many are cracking open a Bible (or a Bible app) for the first time. When I drop familiar names like Abraham, Moses, David and Paul, I’m interrupted with, “Who’s that?” Each year I am starting from scratch.

But that’s OK, because these students are smart! They are taking algebra and geometry, designing and programming robots, and creatively solving future problems. They are active, involved in athletics, music, dance, and scouts. While the digital world is a second language to me, they’re fluent in it.

It takes about two weeks for them to get comfortable with me. Once they know they can trust me and I am a person with a family, a job and a sense of humor, they let down their guard, their personalities come out, and some real learning can begin. While I want each student to have a growing relationship with the Lord, the second-best part of the journey is developing a relationship with me.

Each student claims they can’t memorize anything. Catechism? Bible verses? Can’t do it. Until we start talking about all the lyrics they can sing, movies they can quote, athletes they know everything about and video game strategies stored in their minds. Until I show them how to memorize with purpose. That exercise will serve them well in other areas of life, too.

Every student grows up a lot, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Especially over the summer between seventh and eighth grade. At the start of year two, everyone not only a few inches taller, but the guys start showering and combing their hair and the girls pay more attention to their hair and begin wearing makeup.

Sin and grace are, of course, big concepts to grapple with. Some students never get in trouble. Others constantly get yelled at by their teachers for no apparent reason. When we try and identify sins to confess, few can get beyond not picking up their room or fighting with a sibling. So the idea of forgiveness doesn’t quite have the same impact. Yet. In the course of the middle school years, they will encounter hatred, jealousy, injustice, bullying, and fear in their own lives or in the lives of their friends. That’s when grace begins to mean something.

I am sure I get more out of this journey than my students. I know from experience that those students who were not active in the church before confirmation classes will not be active after. Those who were will be. It’s that simple. It’s all about their family. I just plug in and do my best to help for a few years.

What do I get out of it?

  • I reinforce my own knowledge of Scripture and the Small Catechism. I am no less a child of God, struggling to remember and understand his promises, and come to grips with both sin and grace.
  • I see God’s Spirit at work in the baptized. I am humbled by how little I can do and how much He can do!
  • I see the timelessness of Scriptural truths. So much has changed in the last thirty-five years, but Jesus has remained the same. He is just as relevant for this generation as my own.
  • I have great hope for the church. While my days are numbered in ministry, theirs are just beginning. I tell them they would make good pastors and teachers leaders. To tell you the truth, someday I hope they are mine!
  • It keeps me young. When you hang out with young people, some of it rubs off on you. I thrive on their contagious energy, laughter and creativity.

It is just as much a journey for me as it is for them!