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!

Learning to communicate

So I’m learning how to communicate with someone who can’t communicate. I’m talking about my three-week old granddaughter. I’m fascinated by one who can’t speak or understand a word, yet can communicate so much.

Her face, cries and body language effectively communicate discomfort, curiosity, recognition, surprise, anger and contentment. She responds to voice, music, touch, motion, a breeze, and a smile. Without speaking a word, we communicate very well with each other!

In contrast, there are many adults I speak with who completely misunderstand my words. Or sometimes as I listen I have no idea what someone is talking about.

So one of my “blessings du jour” is learning to communicate – from someone who herself is just learning how to communicate! My granddaughter reminds me to watch the eyes, the mouth, the hands and the feet. Those parts of the body speak non-verbal volumes. She also reminds me to listen to the pitch, the timbre, and the volume of the voice. Or the silence. When I pick her up and she suddenly calms down, it’s clear that she just needed to be held. Words weren’t necessary. But human touch was. My nose tips me off to what she needs, too. (And you know exactly what I’m talking about!)

Much of my work as a pastor is communication. I preach the word in season and out of season. I proclaim the excellencies of the one who called me out of darkness into his marvelous light. I’m ready to give a reason for the hope I have. I teach. I listen as a person confesses their sin, and then speak absolution. I have ears to hear God’s word. And I not only call upon him in the day of trouble, but I pray, praise and give thanks.

I am still learning how to do all these things, from someone who is also learning to communicate!

In secret

In Matthew 6, right in the middle of the sermon on the mount, Jesus commends private rather than public giving, praying and fasting. If you do these things to be seen by others, that will be your only reward — being seen by others. However, when you do these things without any fanfare or recognition, “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:4,6, and 18).

I suppose I’d prefer to be secretly rewarded by God rather than a few seconds of approval from the public. But what kind of rewards are we talking about here? What is the benefit of doing these three spiritual activities?

I’m going to tackle each one individually. First up: giving. Don’t do it to be seen, appreciated or praised. Instead, don’t even let your right hand know what your left is doing. Keep it strictly confidential. That’s how you’ll get the most bang for the buck when giving.

Greed is a tough attitude to break. We always want more, and that desire for more can easily control us or consume us. When we give, we demonstrate control over that desire, responding to God’s desire that we be merciful. It’s not my resources I trust, but him. It’s not money I worship, but him. The reward I most often gain after secret giving is a new heart and a right spirit, created by God.

Next, secret prayer brings a secret reward, too. Prayer always changes my focus from the world around me to him. In that moment, I am focused on heavenly things, which last forever, rather than this world which is all too quickly gone. Prayer means I’m actually talking with God, the Creator and my Savior. He’s not far away, he’s not ignoring me, he’s not too busy. We have time for each other. This can change my who perspective on a moment, a day or my life. That’s rewarding.

Secret fasting? Not as common as the first two. I guess that means you’d never want to let the public know via social media that you were fasting! I learned a few years ago that fasting isn’t always complete abstention from food. It might be not eating a meal or not eating as much. In any event, it is taking thoughtful control of a necessary part of your life. They say that if you can control one little part of your life, you get a better handle on the rest of it too. Mindfully choosing not to eat reminds you that you are walking by the Spirit, not according to the flesh. You aren’t controlled by your body, your desires, or the world around you. You’ve got a handle on those things. If your life is spinning out of control, one little intentional act can stop the momentum long enough to give you a better perspective. Your life isn’t spinning out of control. You’ve got this one thing…and then another…and then another.

Perhaps the best secret reward is intentionally relating to God. You are responding to him, not anything else inside of you or outside of you. It think it’s interesting that if you want to do something to improve your spiritual life, you don’t do something spiritual. You do something physical. Give. Kneel. Fast. And your spirit follows.

Burrito!

At Good News Club last Monday, we started a new unit called “Jesus: God Who Came to Earth.” The kickoff lesson, was as you might imagine, the Christmas story. Fresh from winter break and right on the heels of Epiphany, it was perfect timing.

We never take for granted that any of the kids have heard any of the bible stories, not even the biggies, Christmas and Easter. I suppose we should never assume anyone of any age has heard those stories. And we should never assume that anyone who has heard them ever tires of hearing them again. I know I never do.

Anyway, we got to the part of Christ’s birth where the angel tells the shepherds that they will find the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. None of the kids knew what swaddling cloths were, so I explained that it’s wrapping up a baby like a burrito. If you do it well, the baby feels snug and secure and drifts off to sleep.

At the mention of burrito, the room came alive. Everyone wanted to share their favorite burrito. From Moe’s to Chipotle to Qdoba to Taco Bell, everyone wanted to tell me where they liked to get burritos. Every once in a while you strike a nerve, and a disinterested room suddenly erupts with excitement.

I don’t know if I have a favorite burrito restaurant, but I do have a friend who attacked and conquered one of the biggest burritos I’ve ever seen last Sunday at Mr. Pancho in Palm Coast. It was the size of a log you’d toss on a fire on a cold night. It must have weighed at least two pounds. And it must have been delicious, because it was soon just a lunchtime memory.

But I digress. When you’re telling stories, sometimes you hit it and sometimes you miss. When you hit it, it makes it all worthwhile!