Sorry, we’re closed.

A local fitness center closed its doors last week without any advance warning to employees or clients. Just a note on the door saying informing all they were out of business.

This got me thinking. What if you arrived at church one Sunday morning and found a note like that on the locked front doors? I’m not in any way suggesting that’s going to happen. I’m just curious. What would you do? What would I do?

Would you call someone? Who would you call? The pastor? Your elder (you know who your elder is, right?) The president of the congregation? The friends you usually sit with?

Would you stick around and wait for others to arrive? Maybe someone else will know what’s going on.

Would you find another worship service to attend that day? Or would you just shrug your shoulders and go to breakfast? I know that’s sounds kind of harsh. I’m just working through some of the possibilities, even the absurd ones.

Would you make an effort to find out what happened? Did something happen to the pastor? What happened to all the money? Would you contact the district or the synod offices to ask if they knew anything?

What would you do in the weeks or months to come? Would you find another church to attend? Would you band together with other members to reopen that ministry? Or would you feel betrayed and just give up on church altogether?

Even though the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church of Jesus Christ, local congregations do close. And I’ll bet some of them close suddenly, permanently and without notice. And we never even find out why. If you search the internet for info on church closings, you’ll learn that about 100 close their doors every week in our nation.

We all take it for granted each Sunday morning that when we arrive, we’ll walk through the doors and everything will be prepared for us to worship. Have you ever thought about your role in that reality? Or do you leave that for someone else to worry about? What part do you play in making sure that sign is never taped to the front door of your church?

Day and night, night and day

It was as different as night and day. I preached to the big Christmas Eve crowd last night and to a much smaller gathering this morning, Christmas Day. I grew up always going to both, but most worshippers choose one or the other.

Those contrasting moments feel very different to a preacher. On the one hand, I hope for the “full house” on Christmas Eve. I accept the fact that worship on Christmas Day isn’t even on most people’s radar. The temptation is to be pumped up for the eve crowd, and not put as much effort into the day attendees.

But you can’t do that. Some of those folks came a long way and carved out time to be there. It’s been a long time since they’ve been together as a family. And they are because of the story. A story that remains the same, even though much has changed in the past year.

While the one feels exciting, the other is more intimate. At the one you look at a crowd, but at the other you can look into their eyes. At the one there are many strangers; at the other I’ve met everyone as they’ve arrived.

Which do I like better? It’s hard to say. I really like both. I like to tell the story and I like to hear it, too. It pumps me up and settles me down more than the size of the crowd.

I love the sea of candles in a dark sanctuary on Christmas Eve. I also love the rays of sunshine that stream through the windows first thing on Christmas morning.

Thank you, Lord, for the best of both worlds!

How many people have you killed in church?

andrew-dong-387371It hasn’t been three days yet since Devin Patrick Kelley walked into First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX and opened fire during Sunday morning worship, killing 26 people and injuring about 20 more. You won’t browse the web, watch TV, listen to the radio or talk with family and friends for long before hearing about the incident. Though more information rolls out hourly, there are still so many questions.

“Who was this guy”
“How did he get a gun?”
“Why did he choose this place to kill?”
“What could we have done to prevent this?”
“What should have been done to prevent this?”

We could go on and on. Experience tells us it will take a long time to sort through all the information and unravel the mysteries behind this and so many other shootings.

Of course, we also have to ask, “Could this happen here? Are we safe when we gather for worship?”

I’m a math guy, and I believe the math gives us perspective. There are about 350,000 churches in the United States. Most meet on Sunday mornings for worship. How many had a shooting? Just one. Doesn’t sound like we need to worry about security, metal detectors and locking doors just yet.

On the other hand, 18,000 people are injured and die at home every year. Sounds like you better get out of the house and get to church, where it is much safer! But walk, don’t drive. 3,000 people die in car crashes every day!

Are we safe when we gather for worship? Of course not! “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Don’t you think he knows where to find prey on a Sunday morning?

But that’s not where the greatest danger lies. To discover that, we ask a more penetrating question: how many people have you killed on Sunday morning?

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder’…but I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the fire of hell'” (Matthew 5:21,22). That’s terrifying. Our worship services, bible classes and council meetings are filled with serial killers.

I know Jesus is right, because I’m guilty of anger, gossip and name-calling on a weekly basis. So are you. And my attitudes and words aren’t just killing others. They are killing me. The wages of my sin is death.

What was the first sin outside the Garden of Eden? Murder. Cain kills his brother. Why mess with little sins? If you’re going to sin, you might as well make it a big one.

Here’s where it really gets interesting. How does God respond to this tragedy? How does God respond to the first mass murder? Think about it: Cain kills 25% of the earth’s population. God asks a question, “Where is your brother?”

God knows. He knows Abel is dead. He knows Cain killed him. What does God want? An admission. A confession. Why? Because if we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from unrighteousness (1 John 1:8,9). Because God doesn’t despise broken and contrite hearts (Ps. 51:17). God doesn’t want the wicked to perish. He want them to turn to him and live (Ezekiel 18:23). He wants us to turn to him and live.

A church sanctuary might very well be the most dangerous place to gather for worship. Despite it’s name, it will never be our safe place. You see, our refuge isn’t a place. “God is our refuge” (Psalm 46:1). Only in the arms of his mercy and grace are we safe.

 

 

Dunkin Donuts is open

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Photo by Connor Ellsworth on Unsplash

Blaap. Blaap. Blaap.

Alright, alright. I reach around and finally shut off the alarm. Are you kidding? It’s still dark out. Really dark. What was I thinking? No — today we are doing it. We are getting up and going to church. Period. No debate. Let’s go.

Sheesh. Why does the Keurig work so slowly on Sunday mornings? We are getting a new one as soon as the Black Friday sales come out. As the fog lifts from my brain, I realize that we’ve got lots of time to get ready. 8:15 worship? No problem.

O. My. God. The shower feels so good. I could just stand here in the hot water for hours. Just a month ago the water was chilly, ’cause we had no power for a week. Yes, God, thank you for answering my prayer and restoring my power!

Let’s go. Everyone up! Breakfast? Don’t worry about it. They have cookies and muffins and donuts there. Just find something clean. You know how the pastor is. He’s not looking to see how well the kids are dressed. No, it doesn’t matter if your socks match. Who’s going to see them? We sit in the back anyway. Yes, you can bring your octopus. And your ferret. And a waffle.

It’s only ten minutes to church. The ride is quiet. Not too many cars on the road. D*** we are early. There aren’t any other cars in the parking lot. That’s strange. We’re never the first ones here.

No way. The sign on the door says “One service at 11 am”. Are you kidding me? Why didn’t anyone tell me?

Shoot. That’s right. He did send a text. And an email. Wasn’t there something on Facebook too? Son of a b****.

Oh well. Dunkin Donuts is open. What kind of donuts do you guys want?

“I don’t want to be too far from church.”

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Photo by Cassie Boca on Unsplash

Over the past few weeks I’ve been spending time with families who are making some big decisions about their living situation. For a variety of reasons, they may not be able to continue living in their homes and are exploring other options, from moving in with family to assisted living and long term care. This can never be an easy decision to make. For some, the decision is being made for them by family who are taking a greater role in caring for them. For others, the handwriting is on the wall, and they know that hour is coming.

A common theme in our discussions is church. One of their concerns is not wanting to lose access to their church family, involvement and worship. Among the many financial, health and transportation issues that must be addressed, their faith life rose to the top, like cream atop the milk. Continue reading

What I remember about going to church while I was growing up

ChancelGreenI grew up in a family that went to church every Sunday. Period. I was never forced, nagged or bribed to go to church. We just went. It’s what we did as a family from the time we moved to Ridley Park until I left for college.

I realize some will think that cruel and unusual punishment. Others will applaud my parents for bringing us up that way. Whatever. It was a different time, a different place and a different culture.

I’m not writing this to condemn anyone. I just got to thinking, “What do I remember from church growing up?” I don’t remember anything about church before age 8, when we moved to Ridley Park from Bucks County. But a few things do linger in my memory. (Not many, but a few.) For the record: I grew up attending St. Mark’s Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Ridley Park, PA.

First, I don’t remember a single sermon my pastor ever preached. I don’t remember if he read his sermons or if he spoke extemporaneously. I don’t remember if he was fascinating or boring. All I remember is one phrase that I remember him using a number of times: “The rolley-coaster to hell.” I don’t know the context of that comment, but it sticks in my mind. I never want to be on that ride! Someday, I’m going to use that phrase.

Our family always sat in the same place each Sunday. Third row on the aisle on the left side. That was our family’s spot.

I remember a number of times when I sat to the left of my dad and to the right of a lady who smelled absolutely horrible. I mean days-old-garbage, a-whole-year-old-gym-sweat-socks, Pepe LePew, I’m-going-to-hurl malodorous. I had to bury my nose in my dad’s suit to survive. After that Sunday, I always tried to sit closer to the center aisle with my mom.

We used the same liturgy every Sunday for those eleven years. Lutherans will know what I mean when I say Red Hymnal page 5 (non-communion Sunday) and page 15 (communion). Knew it by heart. Didn’t ever have to glance at the hymnal for the liturgy. And no one ever complained.

There were no children’s sermons. In fact, children didn’t go with the parents to the communion rail. My mom and dad would go up for communion separately, taking turns watching us three kids. There was no way they were going to leave us alone for any length of time.

When I was old enough to acolyte, we acolytes would compete with each other to see who could light or extinguish the six candles the fastest, without hesitation. It’s harder than you think. One fraction of a second too quick, and you’ll have to cover the candle a second time to put it out, and you lose. Acolytes also weren’t allowed to look at the congregation. Ever.

We sang the same communion hymns every time we had communion. So we knew all them by heart, too.

I remember learning to sing parts in church. Each verse I would sing a different part, either soprano, alto, tenor or bass. The practice helped me in future auditions and music theory classes. I still sing a variety of parts to this day, along with a few favorite descants.

I remember some of the people. Mr. Scott was the organist. He was the best noodler I ever heard at the keyboard. He could transition between any key with God’s given style and grace. I remember Mr. Wagner, who sang a lot of tenor solos and was the Cubmaster of our pack. I remember Mr. and Mrs. Buss, who were good friends of our family and talented choir members. I remember Mr. and Mrs. May who had three boys about the same age as me. I remember the pastor’s wife, Mrs. Sallach, who had a beautiful, powerful, operatic soprano voice (ala Sandy Patti).

I remember my job as church janitor during high school. It didn’t pay much. Somehow my pastor convinced everyone they didn’t have to pay minimum wage because they were a church. But it was money. There were forty-four wooden pews in our church — we (I always had a janitor partner) dusted them every single Saturday with two Endust-infused Handiwipes. Our church had a preschool and kindergarten. I knew exactly where they kept the snack cookies, how to get into the closet where they were kept, and how many I could eat without anyone noticing. I learned how to gracefully use a string mop weekly, and annually strip and wax all the linoleum tile floors.

I remember that our church didn’t have air conditioning. We did have several large fans that could have gotten a B-17 off the ground that got us through the hot summer months.

It’s a good exercise for me to remember what I remember. It humbles me with the reality that what people remember about their church experience isn’t what I hope or expect. Someday, someone will write something about me and my ministry to them, and it will be quite amusing.

Through it all, I was weekly fed with God’s grace. When I got to the seminary years later, what they taught me sounded familiar. I had great catechetical instruction. After I got married and had a family, I never had to beg, coerce or bribe my kids to go to church. It was a part of the fabric of our family. And for that I am very thankful for the efforts and routine of my parents and my in-laws, who established that pattern in the hearts and souls of my wife and I.

For some, this is church (part 2)

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Photo by Jakub Kapusnak on Unsplash

For me, the “church” has always been church. But there are other gatherings that function as “church” for them and their families.

It was quite a while ago, but I vividly remember a conversation with some visitors to our church. They only came the one time and wouldn’t be back because their children were involved in a youth hockey league. But they were OK with that, because in their words, “Hockey teaches our kids the same things as church: teamwork, loyalty, sacrifice and hard work.” For them, the hockey experience was church.

In another conversation, an on and off attender explained that they got more support, inspiration and fellowship from their lodge than from the church. Church for them had been filled with conflict, controversy, and contradiction. Their lodge encounter was everything that they thought the church should be. For them, that was church.

Yet a third person found church in a group that met at a coffee shop each week. There they could talk openly about their struggles, and the others would listen. There was no condemnation, only affirmation. The group was loyal, dependable and supportive. Since they found everything they needed right there over a cup of coffee, who needs church. Their coffee-shop group was church to them.

Mark Zuckerberg claims that Facebook can provide the support and purpose that people seek through online groups and communities. His mission is to bring people — 1 billion people — together in this way.

I know that the church is about more than just a support group. But why do some churches seem unable to provide the connection, support and therapy that many desire and find elsewhere?

Maybe Satan doesn’t care if you invest your time and energy into a team, a lodge or coffee. But he’ll do his best to make your church seem like the last place you’ll find what you are looking for.

 

How big is my parish?

yeshi-kangrang-337082I’m often asked, “How big is your church?” That’s a harder question to answer than you realize. Are you asking how many members we have? Or how many come to worship on a Sunday morning? Should we include those who are only in town part of the year? Do we include those who have moved away but still affiliate with us.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold” (John 10:16). Those words hold true for those of us who are ungdershepherds, too. My ministry includes

  • Some I visit in nursing homes or hospital who have never actually come to our church (see “This is my pastor”).
  • Some who used to attend, but don’t come for worship any more.
  • Funerals and weddings for those who are not a part of our congregation.
  • Unchurched spouses, children and parents of members.
  • Families who have attended our Vacation Bible School or Preschool.
  • A few neighbors around my home.
  • Seasonal worshipers, whose main residence is elsewhere.
  • Friends of my children.
  • Friends of students in our youth group.
  • Acquaintances I only see occasionally, at parties or special events.

A whole bevy of people who call me, “Pastor,” for one reason or another. The walls that previously delimited the church were replaced with chain link fences that you could look through, but now even those seem to have come down.

So what has really changed: the church or me? I’ll have to give that more thought.

For some, this is church.

IMG_8027Right after our Vacation Bible School a couple of months ago, I had a revelation. Sorry, nothing supernatural, just some clarity about people and church and people who go to church and people who don’t hardly ever go to church.

Here it is: “church” means different things to different people. Let me tell you what I mean.

I had an amazingly easy time recruiting volunteers for Vacation Bible School this year. In fact, I had people coming to me asking to help out. I actually had more help than I needed, but I found something for everyone to do. In fact, I believe we actually had more leaders than children come this year. This is church

They came faithfully every night, they took their jobs seriously, they worked hard and did a great job and even stayed after to help clean up. The thing is, a decent number of my volunteers don’t even come to church very much if at all. A few times a year at best.

Then it hit me. Vacation Bible School is church to some people! Continue reading