So what should I bring?

I was out catching up on my visits to homebound members today. I caught up with Janet (names modified for this post) at her nursing care facility at the end of her lunch hour. She greeted me warmly and immediately said, “Rex (her elder) came to visit me yesterday and he brought me candy!” I replied, “I’ll bet you all wish he came to visit you more often!”

Just a few weeks ago, the mother of a member died and I stopped by to visit. I texted ahead and said, “What can I bring for you?” She didn’t respond. So I thought,”What can I bring? I know! M&Ms. Who doesn’t need M&Ms?” At the time, they were a minor part of my visit. But when her mom’s pastor stopped by, Sandy mentioned, “My pastor brought M&Ms!” Gooooooal! I felt pretty competent at that moment.

Over the years I’ve brought many things to my homebound members. Word and Sacrament of course. But I have also brought lunch from local restaurants: mostly Subway and Chinese takeout.

My best delivery however was a half-gallon of vodka. I know, that deserves some explanation. Karen lived in an apartment by the beach, and her alcoholic landlord lived in the same building. Just before I left the church, I got a call, and Karen asked me to stop by the liquor store and get the cheapest half-gallon of vodka I could find. She would pay me when I got there. If Dave (her landlord) didn’t have his vodka, there would be hell to pay and she was hoping to avoid that. I don’t especially care for vodka, so it was the first and only time I’ve purchased it, and certainly the only time I’ve been in a liquor store in my clerical collar. The guy at the register didn’t even blink, which is a troubling. How many clergy had he served that day?

My second-best delivery was a bag full of prescriptions medications for Karen. When she asked me to stop by the pharmacy, I said, “Sure, I’ll pick up come meds.” It turned out to be about twelve medications! She had described me to the pharmacist, so he immediately knew who I was and loaded me up with all of her pills. Since she was on Medicare and Medicaid I think I had to pony up $3.00 for her meds.

So if you need anything and I am coming to visit, just let me know what you need. I’m on it. (BTW, they didn’t teach me anything about this at the seminary!)

I'm still learning the middle school dialect

K-pop band BTS

One of the side benefits of teaching confirmation class to seventh and eighth graders each year is that it exposes me to some elements of pop culture that I would never have noticed on my own.

One of my students turned in a sermon report from Epiphany Sunday with a comment at the bottom, “‘Epiphany’ is the name of a really good BTS song!” And just like that, I took a step into the world of K-pop, or Korean pop music, which to me looks like a reincarnation of 1990s boy bands like Back Street Boys and N Sync. Maybe it’s more accurate to call the genre an extrapolation of that musical era. The groups have more members, some are female, and incorporates hip-hop, electronica, and rock along with creative choreography.

I asked this student, “If I needed to cram for a test on K-pop, what videos would I want to watch?” She sent me a long list of YouTube videos to check out, but would only just scratch the surface. We’ll see how it goes as I begin to do a little research.

There is no Rosetta Stone for learning the middle school dialect. Besides, it changes from year to year. Three years ago I had a student who pretty much spoke in quotes from “The Big Bang Theory.” Bazinga! Others of my current students speak in memes, which they spend more time studying than their academics or the catechism. Some live in video game world. Others only understand metaphors from sports they’re involved in, from golf to football to martial arts. It’s always fun to discover how God’s Word speaks to all those “worlds” in which we live.

What a week!

This past Christmas we had all six of our grandchildren together for the first time ever. My son flew to Florida with his wife and three children a few days after Christmas to spend a week with us. My two daughters only live about half an hour away, and often had their families here that week, too. The three older grands are five, four and three years old. The younger ones are five, thirteen and sixteen months. Yes, it was a noisy, messy, energetic, chaotic and fun-filled week!

I was able to finish up a play fort swing set in our back yard. God blessed us with a good weather week, and the older grandkids spent a lot of time climbing and swinging. The younger ones were constantly on the move, emptying toy shelves and constantly campaigning for the next snack or meal. I found myself rotating from child to child, pushing a swing, reading a book, rolling a ball, playdohing some playdoh, sticking some stickers, coloring pictures, building legos, changing a diaper, preparing a snack, filling a drink, digging in the sandbox, taking some pictures and enjoying every minute of it. It was an amazing week. For me it was also a fleeting moment, knowing they would never be this size again.

As the reader might suspect, I thoroughly enjoyed that week. I enjoyed spending time with my children, their spouses and their children. I had no idea what a great experience that would be! My wife and I have been blessed beyond measure.

How has my preaching changed?

I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been writing sermons and preaching weekly to congregations for nearly thirty-four years. Yes, a lot has changed since I first started preparing, writing and delivering sermons.

Today, I have a wealth of resources in the palm of my hand. With just my phone I have access to original language (Hebrew and Greek) tools, commentaries, and written and video sermons on every verse in the bible! Some of those resources are great. Some are so-so. Some are worthless. When I started in 1986, all I had was a study bible and just a few commentaries. I was mostly on my own to read, apply and proclaim the text. Actually, I prefer to work that way now. Most of the online resources are old, trite and not applicable to my congregation. In most cases, I’m better off just working with the text.

When I began, I wrote all my sermons out by hand. I still have a copy of my first handwritten sermon on lined looseleaf paper. It was tedious and took a lot of time. A computer and word processing software saved me a lot of editing and rewriting time. Now I don’t even write everything out, using powerpoint software to organize my thoughts.

I tell a lot more stories than I used to. Stories engage imaginations and stick in your memory. I have worked hard on coming up with and telling stories that illustrate my sermon point. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been enjoyable to learn how to be a better story teller.

I have reused very few sermons in my career. You would think that after ten or twelve years, you would have amassed enough sermons to last for the rest of your ministry. However, when I go back and read what I preached in the past, I usually don’t like the sermon. The words just don’t work twenty or thirty years later. Actually I only have one sermon I’ve used more than once, a wedding sermon from Genesis 2:25 about getting naked!

I’ve got about fifteen years of audio sermons preserved on CDs. Not that I or anyone else listens to them. Maybe I will someday, just to see if my speaking style has changed at all. Without really trying, I find that all my sermons still turn out to be about fifteen minutes long. I’m kind of a “get to the point” guy in my sermons (and my conversations.)

On my way to church early each Sunday morning, I always thank God for my voice (because I’ve been prone to laryngitis), the Word (so I have something to say) and for a congregation (someone who will come to listen). God has consistently blessed me with all those gifts for all the years I’ve been preaching!

Thank you for what you do

Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash

After the late worship service last Sunday, one of our members who shook my hand said, “I just want to thank you for what you do.” At that moment I was losing my voice and I said as best I could, “You’re welcome.” He continued, “You’re here week after week and you always lay out the message clearly. I appreciate that.”

That was a powerful moment. Words of thanks that only take a few seconds to speak are potent. I know that, but I also need to be reminded. One can never say, “Thanks,” too often. And one ought never underestimate the difference those words make.

A simple “thank you” acknowledges a person, validates their actions, elevates them and expresses your feelings towards them. Your value and theirs increases with words of appreciation.

Here’s a great question to ask yourself each morning: “Who can I thank today?” A spouse, a barista, a teacher, a child or a contractor? How will your word of thanks make a difference?

I am prepared to be humbled.

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Since I am retiring from full-time pastoral ministry at the end of this coming July, a call committee at our church has begun the process of preparing to call the next pastor for our congregation. That process includes asking each member of the congregation what abilities, skills, strengths, experience and priorities they would like to see in their next pastor.

I am prepared to be humbled.

Why? First of all, because I’m human, a sinner, and nowhere close to being perfect. I know that either blatantly or subtly, my weaknesses will be highlighted in the responses to this survey. The members of the congregation will frankly tell the call committee what they would never say to my face. Their wishes for the next pastor will expose my weaknesses, failures and negligence.

I’m ready for that.

Trust me, I know my weaknesses. I am very aware of all the things I should have done over the past twenty-four years at this church. My insufficiencies haunt me daily. I did not study, pray, visit, administrate, evangelize, discipline, preach, teach, counsel, participate and celebrate like I should have or could have. I angered, frustrated, annoyed, irritated, insulted, ignored, and drove away many. I did it for the money, the notoriety and my ego.

I do not deny any of that.

When this church called me to be their pastor, they called a sinner. A sinner that deserves temporal and eternal punishment, a sinner redeemed by Christ, a sinner who squeaks into heaven by the grace of God. What did you expect? A saint? A super-hero? Someone you could look up to?

I never wanted you to look up to me. I wanted you to look to Christ. He’s the one who was obedient, he’s the one who was crucified and he’s the one who rose. He’s the one who will meet your hopes, expectations and dreams.

Me? I’m just me. And I am grateful I got to be your pastor for these last twenty-three or four years. What a gift.

I am once again giving thanks for the gift of sight

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Yesterday I had my first cataract surgery. I woke up this seeing clearly from my right eye with out glasses or contact lenses for the first morning in many, many years. I am again giving thanks for the gift of sight.

I got my first pair of glasses when I was ten years old. My observant fourth grade teacher Mrs. Dimico saw me squinting to read the chalkboard and tipped off my parents. They took me to Cleary Optical which I think was in the neighboring town of Prospect Park, PA to get me examined and fitted for glasses. The lenses were ground from glass fifty years ago and I remember having the choice of two frames: black or tortoise shell. I chose black. Two weeks later we went to pick them up and Dr. Cleary spent nearly thirty minutes making sure they fit me correctly, an agent of the gift of sight. At first I only wore them when I needed them. But as time went on and I got progressively more nearsighted, I pretty much wore them all the time.

When I graduated college and had my first job, I got my first pair of soft contact lenses. Forty years ago, you purchased a pair which would last about a year. Not only did they require daily cleaning, but also weekly disinfecting in a little cooker thing made for that purpose. I was really thankful for that gift of sight, because now I could see when I was out running! The doctor also told me that contact lenses would slow the progression of my nearsightedness.

Eventually, I began to have a little trouble focusing on reading material as well as distance. I’m thankful for Dr. King in St. Augustine, who turned me on to monovision contact lenses. My left eye was corrected for distance, my right for reading. Worked like a charm, plus I now opened up a new pair every month.

When Dr. King moved out of his office, I began going to a local eye doctor who took my vision insurance plan. I’m thankful for Dr. Nunez who suggested I try multifocal lenses. Each lens was made with alterating concentric circles for distance and close up correction. After I wore them for a few days, my brain figured out which to use, and both my eyes could see near and far.

I am also thankful to Dr. Nunez who quickly got me into a retina specialist when one day without warning, I noticed a little dark patch of vision in the corner of my right eye. I not only had a tear in my retina, but it had also separated. I thankful that Dr. Nunn was able to laser my retina back into place and preserved the sight in that eye. Why did it happen? He explained that when you are nearsighted, your eye isn’t spherical, but more football-shaped, lending itself to separation. A tear with no separation happened a few years later in my left eye, too, and I am thankful that Dr. Jaroudi was able to laser that in place, too. I am extremely grateful for the technology which restored and preserved my eyesight!

All that lasering accelerated the growth of cataracts in both of my eyes, so I am having both lenses replaced with implants. My right eye has been adjusted for reading and my left eye will be for distance. The whole procedure for replacing my lens yesterday took less than fifteen minutes. The longest part of the morning was putting lots of drops in my eyes. Plus I didn’t feel a thing. I’m very thankful for Dr. Myer’s training, skills and work on my eye.

I know how complex the eye and the sense of sight is. It’s a wonder of God’s creation, as are all the colors, contrasts and textures he created for us to see. Some days I take those things for granted. But not today. Today, I’m once again grateful for the gift of sight!

The late Friday afternoon phone message

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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.

Call me back, OK?

Our sugar-free quest

A couple of years ago we started paying attention to how much sugar was in the food we consumed. We quickly became aware that it’s challenging to find foods that don’t have a lot of added sugar. Those that don’t have added artificial sweeteners which are an issue for us. I am talking about things like tomato soup, barbecue sauce and pasta sauce.

The solution: you have to make your own. Here are a few of my favorite recipes.

  • I found this recipe for marinara sauce in the New York Times years ago. Simple, easy and so good. Sometimes I’ll add a whole bunch of sautéed mushroom slices, and my wife will love me even more.
  • I love this barbecue sauce I found at Wholesome Yum. I did not add any of the suggested sweetener they recommend, and it was delicious.
  • Tomato soup? I don’t have any favorites yet, but you can find many recipes online. I’ve learned that you can leave out any sweeteners, and still end up with a delicious bowl!
  • We make a batch of Flourless Blueberry Banana muffins weekly. The fruit provides all the sweetness you need. You have to try these. I make large muffins and bake them for 17 minutes.
  • The Gluten-free Almond flour pancakes we like the best are here. We make a double batch and freeze what we can’t eat. They microwave back to life when we want them for a quick breakfast!

I am not the best sugar-free eater on the planet. Not by a long shot. But we constantly strive to do better, and I am sure we are reaping the benefits.