Prayers for life

Cindy Johanson, director of Central Florida Pregnancy Center, Deland, FL

This morning (January 22) I attended a prayer breakfast hosted by Alpha Women’s Center, a ministry the congregation and I have supported for over seventeen years in Flagler County, FL. I had been invited to say a prayer for the center as well, something I readily agreed to do.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, since I don’t believe they have had an event like this before. But under the leadership of the current director, Wilma Williams, they are working hard to encourage and expand their footprint in the county.

The event was held in a very small church cafe in Flagler Beach, just barely big enough to hold the thirty folks who attended. At least four other pastors attended, plus representative from a number of other congregations. The meal of quiche, fruit, muffins and oatmeal was just right and delicious.

The guest speaker was Cindy Johanson, the executive director of the Central Florida Pregnancy Center in Deltona, FL. The occasion of her talk was a sober reminder of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade was handed down on January 22, 1973, lifting restrictions on abortion in the United States. Since then, the lives of over 60,000,000 children have been ended by abortion.

Her words were also encouraging. Currently, there are over 3,000 pregnancy centers in the United States. There are 800 abortion clinics. The work of so many for life has increased dramatically.

She pointed out that when someone is dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, all they see is a life or death issue. The birth of a child often threatens plans for education, career, and relationships. Those who work to protect and preserve life know that there are many more options, and are glad to speak about the possibilities with any who seek out help. While those who end life make a profit, those who work to save it do not make a penny. Rather, we make great sacrifices to provide these services.

None of what Alpha does would be possible had not God placed a burden for life in each heart who lifted up prayers today. We pray to the God who gives us life and breath and everything else, that he would continue to bring life to our families and communities. We pray to the God who came to sacrifice his own life for us so that we could live. We pray to the God who accompanies us through the valley of the shadow of death to life.

As I was about to leave, I overheard a conversation between a college student and her pastor. She had used her wonderful musical talents to play a few songs for the meeting. But I heard her say, “Remind me again what Roe v. Wade is.” What an important reminder to keep talking about the issues, the history, and our part in it. We cannot assume that all have heard or understand the issues. We cannot assume they know what is at stake. Communication and information are powerful and essential. The opposing side works hard at this. So must we.

Just like them

Photo by Ravi Patel on Unsplash

I had a few hours to wait for some service to be done on my car, so walked up U.S. from Coggin Honda in St. Augustine to Panera Bread in Cobblestone Village. It was a really nice morning, so I didn’t mind the walk at all. I was wearing a pair of jeans, a hoodie, some old sneakers, my backpack containing some things to read and work on when I got to my coffee destination.

On the way I passed a number of people walking and riding bikes. After a few nods and “Hi’s” I realized that I looked just like them. You wouldn’t think that would be a revelation. But when I am driving along that same stretch of road, my mind immediately assigns the label “homeless” to these folks. Now on foot, I wondered, “I wonder what label they’re putting on me?”

Not my name. Not my profession. Not someone having their car serviced. Not someone on their way for coffee. They know nothing about where I live, my relationships, my faith, or how healthy I am.

I don’t know that about them, either. That’s a good reminder when I begin to assume they don’t have a home, don’t have a job, and haven’t had a meal. Or when I characterize them as not having relationships, education or ambition. It doesn’t take much to visually characterize someone in a negative way. It doesn’t take much at all.

I don’t like that about myself. I don’t like the way my mind immediately sizes someone up, usually in a disparaging way. I don’t even know where that tendency comes from. Where did I learn that?

It’s good to walk around in jeans and a t-shirt, being seen – but not known. It disciplines my heart and mind so that I am not so quick to draw conclusions. It clears my head of shallow assumptions. It helps me notice rather than look through those around me. It teaches me humility, kindness and grace. Cause when it comes down to it, I am just like them.

Help! I’m being held hostage by product reviews!

In the good old days before online shopping, I would go to the store, look over the available products, and select one to buy. I’d pick the one that looked good, felt good, and was priced right. Do you remember those days?

I shop on line now. As do many of you. This means I buy a lot of things sight unseen. So I read the reviews. Positive reviews. Negative reviews. And some in-between. In a crazy, scary way, these reviews control my purchases. People I don’t even know are controlling my shopping habits.

And here is what I have noticed: negative reviews wield much power over me. A product may have, let’s say, one hundred reviews. 90% are four or five stars. I will read the one star reviews, the ten percent, to learn why this product is junk and the seller a piece of slime.

The negative responses usually go something like this:

  • “Worked for ten minutes, then quit.”
  • “Instructions were vague; assembly took three days.”
  • “Poor quality, missing pieces, shoddy craftsmanship, disappointing purchase.”
  • “Too hot” “Too cold” “Too hard” ” Too soft” “Too big” “Too small” (Goldilocks responses.)
  • “Arrived broken, seller unresponsive, and my life sucks.”

You know what? I tend to listen to the negative. I read about all the things that go wrong, and decide I need to buy something else. Something better. Something of quality. Whatever. People I don’t even know are controlling my shopping habits!

OK, Bill, take a deep breath. Who is writing these reviews? “Verified purchasers?” How do I know that’s true? Satisfied customers? Unsatisfied customers? Who knows.

Most of the time – the majority of the time – I’ve been happy with my purchases. And they had nothing to do with the reviews. I am not a bad judge of quality. I know that my purchase comes from China (duh!). And I know I can send it back for a refund. No harm. No foul.

You can either choose to be controlled by someone else’s opinion. Or your own discernment. My inner voice is valid, too.

Best (cough, cough) phone message (cough, hack) ever

Just after I walked into church in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning, I set down my brief case and hit the speaker button on my desk phone. Then I punched “9” and heard the intermittent tone that signaled a message. I normally don’t listen to messages on Sunday morning, but I was curious, so I dialed the voice mail number. “You have one new message.”

“Message left Friday at 3:20 pm.” Typical. Someone waited till the end of the week to call with a question. And the question went something like this:

“Hello, my name is <some words I couldn’t understand> and I wanted to <cough><cough><cough><hack><cough><hack><gasp><wheeze><cough>…”

The coughing and hacking went on for about thirty seconds, until the raspy voice said, “Oh, never mind!” And they hung up.

“You have no more messages. To delete your message…”

After all that, they never called back. They didn’t try again. They just gave up. Now I was really curious. What happened? Were they OK? Would I ever hear the question? I was also greatly amused. I laughed out loud, which for me is a great way to start my Sunday morning!

You went to Taco Bell?

As we were getting ready to begin our Thursday morning men’s bible study at Bob Evans last Thursday, a member of the class casually mentioned, “I had a taco from Taco Bell…” I and a few others did a double take. We didn’t have to say what we were thinking: “You went to Taco Bell?”

It was a surreal moment. The person who ate the aforementioned taco appreciates good Tex-Mex food. They also appreciate good, genuine Mexican food. Yet, in the moment, Taco Bell looked good, promised to satisfy and drew them in.

Reflecting on that moment, this person commented, “I couldn’t find the meat!” While affordable, these tacos contained very little beef. “And when I bit in to one, it broke apart.” Been there. Done that. Tortilla shell crumbs everywhere!

Many in the class acknowledged that this diner would be spending some significant time in a “reading room.” Easy come. Easy go!

No bacon?

While waiting for some work to be done on my car, I walked up to Panera Bread in St. Augustine to have breakfast, drink some coffee, and do a little writing. As I stepped up to order, I glance at the menu board, saw exactly what I wanted, and said, “I’ll have the bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.” Delicious.

The very young lady taking orders said, “We don’t have any bacon.” What? I said it out loud: “What?” I glanced at my watch. 9:00 am. And you are out of bacon? Wow, you’ve got some big breakfast menu problems! I settled for the ham, egg and cheese sandwich, but as we all know, it’s just not the same without bacon.

That moment brought to mind my visit to McDonalds a few years ago, when the window gal told me, “We don’t have no shakes.” Or when our home court Bob Evans restaurant who suddenly decided that raisins would no longer be a topping available for oatmeal. Or the morning they decided, “We no longer serve English muffins.” I’m sure someone at corporate, who rarely actually ate breakfast at a Bob Evans restaurant, decided there was money to be made by striking raisins and muffins from the menu.

And then I flashed back to a song my mom and dad used to sing at the piano when we were kids: “Yes, We Have No Bananas!” an old 1923 song from Louis Prima. That’s the only line I remember from the song. Back then, it was a number one hit for five straight weeks!

How in the world can you have no bacon on a Friday morning at 9 am? Come on, can’t someone make a run to Publix!

A beginning and an end in a moment

It was a beautiful afternoon wedding. Slightly overcast skies kept it from getting too hot as the young couple took their vows just a few steps away from a blooming rose garden. Friends and family watched from all sides, witnessing two becoming one.

Some remained for the vast array of pictures while others, including myself, headed towards the small community center for the reception. I helped put the beer on ice as the BBQ caterers carried in the food and the DJ set up his sound equipment. Just a few minutes later the wedding party entered. Who knew how good ribs and champaign paired? Soon the dancing began.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. I glanced at it, recognized the name, and felt like I needed to answer. The voice told me that Jack (not his real name) had just been taken to the hospital. I confirmed which hospital it was, and thought, “I’ll head down there a little later on my way home.” I also thought, “I better start drinking ice tea and lemonade.”

Minutes later, my phone buzzed in my pocket. Same name and number. This time the voice said, “Jack just died.” What? I just saw him a few days ago. He seemed fine. I grabbed my coat, told my wife what happened, gave her a quick kiss and headed out to my car. I knew that his wife – now his widow – was alone with him. The rest of the family was not just out of town. They were out of state.

I didn’t turn on the radio right away, letting my mind transition from the first day of a married life together to the last day of a married life together. The last day of sixty-five years together. I never know when I will experience such extremes in just a few hours.

Another occasion from a few year ago flashed into my mind. One afternoon I baptized an infant just moments before I did a funeral for her great-grandmother. It was the one moment when all the family could be there, so we laughed and cried and celebrated the first and last pages of life.

Half-an-hour later I walked through the emergency room doors. Suspecting why I was there, a nurse in a mask at a desk asked, “Who are you here for?” After I answered she gave me a room number and clicked me in. I walked into the room where Jack’s body lay, still intubated and IV’d. His widow Marie sat there, head bowed, holding his hand. I touched her shoulder, she looked in my eyes, and reached up to hug me. My prayers joined hers as we commended Jack into the Lord’s hands, body and soul and all things. The words of the benediction spoke a powerful blessing.

I spent the next two hours with Marie. I certainly wasn’t going to leave her there alone as we waited for the staff to contact the funeral home. I also spoke with her daughter and a few dear friends to make sure Marie wouldn’t have to spend the night alone.

We sat there for a while, sometimes very quiet, sometimes talking about life and death. I thought to myself, “Sixty-five years ago, they took their vows, just like the young couple today.” And then I thought, “Imagine that young couple sixty-five years from now!” Time warped for me as six-and-a-half decades compressed into a moment. If you watch space science fiction TV and movies, you get to know the phrase “time-space continuum.” If you are in the ministry, sometimes you actually get to experience it!

A pile of stuff

It looks like the rental property just a few houses up from mine is turning over once again. How do I know? Most of the contents of the house been evicted, only to find a new home on the front lawn. A pile of sofas is also staged inside the garage, waiting for their trip to the curb.

It’s a small home, it’s been a rental for a long time, and it’s had a number of tenants over the years. The thing that caught my attention this time is that most of the stuff out front seems to be smashed, broken, cracked, dented and otherwise damaged. Were all the drawers from that dresser broken apart inside the house? Were all those bike wheels bent and twisted? Were those chairs ripped and torn? Or did those emptying out the house damage everything on the way out the door? Was it deliberate? Frustration? Anger?

The contents of our homes tell a story, don’t they? It might be a happy story, of times spent with family and friends. It might be a sad story, of violence or even death. Spread out on the street, they might announce that you just got new furniture or remodeled your home. They might also reveal the consequences of losing your job or the health to live in that home anymore.

You might not want to share that story with the world. But sometimes, your trash has much to say about what’s going on in your life.

They thought I was kidding

As I began preaching yesterday, I mentioned that there are some in the congregation who believe I should more confrontational, more aggressive, more direct in my preaching, along the lines of John the Baptist. JTB didn’t pull any punches calling his audience a “brood of vipers” who didn’t take repentance seriously, basically trees bearing nothing but rotten fruit that should be cut down and burned.

I said that maybe I should zero in on our smug self-righteousness, our neglect of the poor, and our failure to witness. Rather than children of God we look more like the descendants of the serpent himself.

After each of those examples, many in the congregation smiled, snickered and audibly chuckled. As I spoke, I felt personally convicted about each of those offenses, but they didn’t. Either they really didn’t take it seriously, or I didn’t preach the law clearly. And if they didn’t get the law, did they get the gospel? Did they think I was kidding about that, too?

Feedback after a sermon is valuable, but rare. It may come in the form of a comment or question after worship or later in the week. But it might also come in the moment, from a look in their eyes or an expression on their faces. The latter was true yesterday, and it was humbling.

I don’t want to get caught in the trap of believing I’ve got this down, that I know how to effectively reach an audience. As soon as I do, I let down my guard, I don’t work as hard as I should, and I’m nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. You can either humble yourself and work hard, or you can let God humble you so you can get back to work.

Either way, by his grace, there’s another Sunday coming up. Another chance. Thank you!