The blessing of being dispensable

In the sermon this morning, I talked a little about being “indispensable.” It came up in the context of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he writes, “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:22).

Who is indispensable in the life of the church? One might be tempted to say, “the pastor.” I would disagree. I am blessed to have a number of retired pastors worshiping with our congregation. I asked them, “When you retired, did they shut the doors of the church? Did the ministry fold?” Of course not. That church called another pastor. The ministry continued. Rather than being indispensable, we pastors are quite replaceable.

I think this is an important part of longevity in the ministry. The church was here before me. It will be here when I’m gone. What happens when you think of yourself as disposable, dispensable and replaceable? All kinds of good things!

First, you value God and other people much more. As your importance decreases, theirs increases. God’s eternal. He’s always around. He’s the one you want to depend on.

And other people? They are the reason you get to be a pastor. They are the ones you’ve been called to shepherd. They are the ones who need to hear the voice of their shepherd. And you are the one called to preach the word. You wouldn’t have a job without them. I so enjoy preaching, teaching and administering the sacraments. But I wouldn’t get to do any of it were it not for our Lord’s sacrificial love for his people.

Second, you let others shine. You are not the main event. They are. They reach many more people than I ever will. I spend most of my time with those who believe, who are already saved. But the congregation is out there in the world, where they live and where they work. They are out there on the front lines, living out their faith. They know, talk to and witness to people I will never meet. I may help equip them for that task, but they are the ones who actually engage in it.

Finally, you marvel at the work of his hands. You appreciate all those who come to listen week after week. You thank God for all those who daily pray for you. You are grateful for those who make it possible for you to do what you do. And you are motivated to do your best – for their sake. They need to hear,; you get to preach. Actually, you need to preach. It’s a part of who you are. But you couldn’t do it without them. They are indispensable.

Are you willing to disagree?

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

A few days ago, I wrote about a prayer breakfast I attended to support our local pregnancy center. At that breakfast, a man representing a local church had a moment to share a story before he closed the event with prayer. It’s worth sharing here.

He daily attended mass, and that morning, the homily was given by “the “liberal priest.” By liberal, he meant one who wasn’t as anti-abortion as this gentleman. The essence of the homily spoke about justice for women, whose lives had to be considered as well as the unborn.

The gentleman at our breakfast took issue with this and stayed to speak to the priest after mass. He took the priest to task, pointing out that the church had always done much for life, from building hospitals and nursing homes, to cooking and distributing food, to assisting in foster care and adoption, in ministering to the homeless, in seeking justice for those in prison, and providing hospice care for the dying. Such care was provided for both female and male alike. Protecting unborn life was the necessary starting place in caring for life, a task that continued through all stages of life and death.

The thing that impressed me about this the most is that the person who shared the story had no intention of leaving his church because of the comments made that day. He was not afraid to discuss the issues and if necessary, disagree, even with the priest. He wasn’t going anywhere. His devotion and commitment to God could weather a debate on the sanctity of life.

I found this incredibly refreshing. From my experience, members of the church quickly head for the door when they disagree with something they hear from the pulpit. They seek out a place where they can hear what they want to hear. And it doesn’t take much. It can be a single word they didn’t like. Or something they interpret as politically partisan. Or a point that hits a little too close to home and makes them feel guilty. Rather than discussing the issue or making their position known or simply asking some questions, they do not return.

This tendency makes me nervous in another way, too. It makes me wonder whether the church is more connected to me or to the Lord. While my time in the pulpit is finite, the Word of the Lord lasts forever. I certainly hope your devotion and commitment aren’t contingent on me. If so, we are both in a lot of trouble.

Live from our chapel

Preaching live from the chapel

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.

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!