You couldn’t wait for me to get to “amen.”

caleb-woods-182648-unsplashThis hasn’t happened just once. I’d say it happens about once a month. I’ll be out visiting someone in their home or the hospital, and as I wrap up a prayer, they begin speaking less than one second after I say, “Amen.”

“Amen.” “Pastor, I have a question…”

“Amen.” “I’ve always wondered…”

“Amen.” “There was this guy…”

“Amen.” “I just don’t understand…”

So, you really weren’t praying along with me, were you? You were somewhere else, having boarded a different train of thought, impatiently waiting for me to get to “amen.” Anyone who knows me knows I do not say long prayers. It’s not that I lost you in a vast sea of petitions. You had just fast-forwarded through whatever I would say, biding your time until I finally finished.

I’m not really upset by this. It just surprises me. You’d be surprised if I didn’t pray with you, and yet your mind was wandering.

Good listening means you aren’t formulating a response when the other person is talking. You’ve set that aside, so you can pay attention to what the other person is saying. This is very hard to do. Listening is hard. I guess it’s hard to focus when someone’s praying for you, too.

Here are a few tips for the next time your pastor comes to visit and prays with you

  • Keep your eyes closed (if you pray with closed eyes) for just a moment after “amen.” Savor the blessing of a God who listens to and responds to your prayers. Just like a fine wine, prayers have a finish worth enjoying.
  • Take a couple of breaths after “amen.” Let the petitions echo in the room and in your mind for a moment. Let the dust settle before you speak.
  • Add your own prayer after “amen.” Keep the conversation going. Ask and seek and knock.
  • Embrace a few seconds of silence. It’s a noisy world and quiet moments are at a premium. Make the most of them.

I find great comfort and inspiration in knowing that a moment of prayer can turn an ordinary home, hospital room, nursing home or park bench into the holy ground of God’s presence. I know he loves those moments, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I’ve learned from teaching confirmation class this year

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 9.58.41 PMWe are down to just a few more weeks of confirmation instruction. One more lesson to go on the third article or the creed (resurrection and everlasting life), and then a review week for three students to be confirmed in April.

This will be the thirty-first time I’ve taught the catechism to seventh- and eighth- graders (with a few high schoolers tossed in from time to time). In some ways it gets easier the more you do it. In other ways it gets harder. But after all those years, I am still learning myself, and I thought I’d share some of those lessons.

  • With ten students all together, all of whom are busy with lots of other activities, I broadcast my classes on Facebook live. I learned how to use this convenient platform that saves the feed to watch later. Plus, I usually had about 75 assorted people tune in to watch a few minutes of the class, from all around the world.
  • I learned a lot, again, about how much young people grow and develop from the beginning of seventh grade and the end of eighth grade. This is the time when they discover who they are. They learn new skills, work together with new teams, ride waves of failure and success, and make me laugh in endless ways.
  • I learned that there are some I just cannot teach. I had to cry, “Uncle” when confronted by some of the behavioral challenges dumped into my class. I felt completely helpless when teaching students who were completely uncooperative and disruptive yet were intriguing in their comments. There are no seminary classes in special ed.
  • Kids have an appetite that just does not end. I brought pizza, Girl Scout cookies, fried chicken, and chips and salsa. I never brought enough. They will consume everything in their path. Like locusts.
  • I am getting old. The gap is widening. These kids are programming robots, living in virtual reality worlds, and communicating in so many different ways. I’m not. I’m just barely treading water in their world. RPGs? I’m not there. I don’t follow any You-tubers. I’m a dinosaur.

Teaching young people keeps me young – as young as I can be for now. I’m thankful for that little bit of eternal life!

Visual prayers

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Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Yesterday I made reference to a couple of things that I pictured in my mind as I was praying before preaching. I never thought much of it before, but some of my favorite prayers are visual prayers. Rather than words spoken out loud or in my mind or written on a page, some of my prayers are just images.

One from yesterday was being doused with a cooler full of ice water, like the winning coach after a football game. I used that image in a sermon about baptism, that that image reminds me that I’m a baptized child of God.

Another was having blood sprinkled on me. When announcing God’s covenant to the people, Moses slaughtered a bull, threw half the blood on the altar and the other half on the people. That was their way of shaking hands on a deal. I picture myself being spattered with blood, the blood of Christ the cleanses me from sin.

Sometimes I remember Nehemiah’s supervision of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem after God’s people returned from exile. Each person was given a part of the wall to work on. So I’ll picture a wall being repaired and ask, “What part of the wall do you want me to work on today, Lord?” In other words, what task should I focus on today? It’s also a good reminder that I don’t have to build the whole wall myself!

I also love the image of riding shotgun with Jesus. I shout, “Shotgun,” jump in the driver’s side and ask Jesus (who’s at the wheel), “So where are we going today?” It’s a question that makes perfect sense to me if I think of myself as a follower.

When I am praying with someone who is close to death, I picture Jesus just on the other side of this reality, waiting to welcome them. It makes my spine tingle just to think about that.

I’ll have to go back through my journals and dig up a few more. Who knows, maybe this will end up being one of the books I’ll write.

 

 

 

 

Taking another bag of idols to the curb

neonbrand-441844-unsplashI think I would do anything for the approval of others.

And I know I’m not alone. We Christians like to say we fear, love and trust God above all things. We think the first commandment “You shall have no other gods” is a piece of cake. The reality is that the god of approval has taken up residence and occupies a large space in our hearts.

Jacob, Joshua and Samuel had to tell God’s people to get rid of all their idols. Their tents were full of them. If they were going to be serious about God, everything has to go. I always imagine it’s bulk trash day, and piles of wood and metallic statues sit on the curb in front of everyone’s home.

I’ve never had anything like that. But the idol in my heart is much harder to extricate. It’s so much a part of who I am. I’m an oldest child, so I’m a follow the rules, color inside the lines, arrive on time, drive the speed limit, think inside the box kind of person. I thrive on being praised for being a good boy. I even like it when I’m teased for being too law-abiding.

Every “good sermon,” “great job,” and “thanks for doing that,” is another push on the bicycle tire pump that inflates my head a little bit more. It’s a shot of emotional adrenaline that I’ve come to crave. I don’t care if you’re just being polite or just telling me what you think I want to hear. I’ll consume whatever your serving. It all tastes delicious, and yes, I’ll have seconds, thank you.

There is a down side to this god that isn’t the true God. They have a way of consuming you. You don’t reveal your struggles. You pretend you can handle everything. You rarely ask for help. You withdraw, lest someone see you not at your best. You exaggerate — not a lot, just a little bit – to get more mileage out of a compliment. “Vulnerable” and “transparent” aren’t part of your vocabulary. Are you nuts?

Like any idol, this god can obscure the approval of God. His approval is so different. His approval has nothing to do with my performance. His approval comes despite my performance. His approval is solely based on his love for me, a love revealed in Christ. No pressure, no pretending, no manipulation. Just the real thing.

Thank goodness God called me to be a preacher. Each week as I prepare to proclaim Christ and him crucified, I am reminded of his love, and I take another bag of idols out to the curb. His approval eclipses anything they promise or give, so why keep them around? It’s my spiritual version of minimalism. I only need one God, the real one.

Every week before I preach, I pray. I kneel during the last verse of the sermon hymn, take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and thank God for the opportunity to preach. I ask him to open hearts to hear exactly what he wants to tell them. And I picture two things. First, I imagine a cooler of water dumped on my head, a reminder of my baptism. I’m already a child of God. I don’t have to impress anyone. Second, I imagine having blood spattered on me, just like Moses sprinkled blood on the altar and then on the people, a reminder of God’s covenant with them. His blood covers me, and I don’t have to prove anything. I make the sign of the cross, and I’m ready to go. There’s just one God in the room and I’m not him. And just wait till you hear what he has to say!

 

 

 

 

How about a few new prayers?

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Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

Every week, the prayer of the church includes petitions based on the readings for the day, for pastors and missionaries, for our nation and leaders, for the sick and sorrowing, and for those who will receive the sacrament. Then, I ask, “Are there any other prayers you would like to include?” As hands are raised, I make my way around the sanctuary to pray for other individual concerns. The vast majority of the requests are for those who are sick, having surgery soon, or at the end of life.

That’s OK. Scripture tells us that if someone is sick, pray for them. But aren’t there any other things we can pray about? What about praying for someone’s salvation? Or for a church just getting started? Or for some new ministry opportunity? Or for the community? How about thanks? Or praise?

Just mix it up a little. Otherwise people start to tune out. Let’s push the boundaries a bit, stretch our comfort zone, explore new territory. What do you think?

 

Just pay attention

jordan-whitt-145327Here we are, reeling from another school shooting. Usual post-tragedy rants about what should be done is in full gear, at least for now. As more information about the shooter emerges, there are endless questions and debates about school safety, guns, mental health, thoughts and prayers, politics, rights and legislation.

As I was working on my sermon this past week, I found a disturbing connection between an ancient moment and current events. It seems that asking parents to drop their kids off at school isn’t much different than God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22. I know it’s a harsh comparison. But in that comparison, I found some things worth thinking about. Continue reading

Go to your room!

ben-blennerhassett-336485One of the last minute additions to my Ash Wednesday sermon on Matthew 6:1,5-6 was Jesus’ admonition, “Go to your room!” when you are praying. (When’s the last time someone told you to “go to your room?”)

Praying in seclusion certainly has its merits. You can say whatever you want, in whatever tone of voice you want, and not worry about what anyone else might think. You can yell, cry, laugh, swear, spit, whatever. No one’s going to hear. It’s just you and God. You can wear whatever you want, anything from PJs to workout gear or nothing at all if that’s your favorite flavor. No one’s going to say a thing. No one will know. Your posture? Sit, stand, lie down, fetal position or downward dog. It’s up to you.

On top of that there are lots of rooms in which you might pray in seclusion. Like Jonah in a fish, Elijah in a desert, or Moses on a mountain. On a walk, taking a bike ride, In the backyard, shower, empty church sanctuary, office, garage, man cave, workshop, a closet, driving a car, up on the roof, in a journal, or actually in your room. My favorite: on a run. That when my thoughts really flow. A close second: at my church office desk, imagining Jesus sitting in the side chair.

Don’t overanalyze it. Just talk to him and listen.

 

 

Ashes to go

24hy432Early this morning I took Ash Wednesday on the road. Two things prompted me to do this. One was this article. The other happened last year after our noon service. I joined one of our small groups for lunch, and the cashier at the restaurant saw me in my collar with ashes on my forehead and asked, “Do you have any more ashes?” Because of her job, she didn’t get to go to her church and get ashes. It made me wonder who else was like her?

So this year I got myself and my ashes together and I went to a Starbucks near us about 6 am. I had told the congregation I would be there, and it put it out on social media, too. I got myself a grande dark, found a nice corner and sat down to work and wait for the next two hours.

As I worked on sermons and devotions, a few church members wandered in to see me. Some on their way to work, some up before their caregiver duties began, one on the way to Mahjong, a few others on the way to school. All would not be able to attend worship today, so all appreciated the chance to talk for a moment, remembering with ashes both out mortality and the eternal life we have in Christ. Several hung out for a little, asking about me and how I was doing. Eight folks in all this time around.

The coffeeshop wasn’t as busy as I expected. About half of those who came in had placed online orders, grabbed their cup and were quickly out the door. A couple of folks who were there when I arrived were still there working on their computers when I left at 8 am.

I enjoyed the coffee and the conversation. I may try it again next year. Perhaps I’ll make a little sign (though it was pretty obvious what I was doing.) Or go a little bit later in the morning. It takes a few cycles for people to get used to something new. I like Starbucks better, but maybe I’ll give Dunkin Donuts a try.

Always get a consult.

tomas-gal-434717They “did not ask counsel from the Lord” (Joshua 9:14).

That turned out to be a big mistake. The Gibeonites had heard of how Israel had won great victories at Jericho and Ai and were shaking in their boots. They needed a plan, and they came up with a good one. We’ll dress up in old clothes and pretend we came from some distant country. Hopefully they’ll have mercy on us,  and we’ll save our lives.

It worked. Joshua didn’t consult the Lord, but made treaty with them. Three days later they discovered that these guys were locals. Too bad, so sad. They had already made a treaty, and now had to put up with them.

Lesson learned? Always get a consult.

Easier said than done. After all, why bring God in on every little decision that has to be made? Come on, I wasn’t born yesterday, I‘ve been around the block a few times and I like to believe I’m smarter than the average bear. I’ll definitely call God in on the big stuff. But I can handle the rest, right?

On the other hand, how hard is it to ask, “What do you think, God?” He knows what’s going to happen down the road. He knows the truth behind the masks people wear. He’s not fooled by those who set out to scam you. And he cares about what happens to you. He’s always around, always listens, promises wisdom to those who ask, and looks beyond appearances to the heart and motivations of people. What do you have to lose?

So that has become one of my mantras. Always get a consult. When someone asks you to do something, or when you have to make a decision, when you don’t know what to do, or when you are absolutely certain you know the right course of action. Just ask, “What do you think, God?”

He may not say anything and let you decide. He may bring to mind some scripture that speaks to that. He may use someone else to guide you. He may close a door. He may show you another option you never thought of. Who knows? But at least you kept him in the loop. And he is definitely a good one to have in the loop.

But no matter what, always get a consult.