Posted in Moments of grace

How I learned to value the differences between others and myself.

My vicarage congregation Berea Lutheran Church on E. Oliver Street, Baltimore, MD with our house in the background. Photo is from 1985

I’ve wanted to and needed to write this post for a while, but just had way too many thoughts and questions running through my head.

Racial justice is a big deal. It has been for a long time. I instinctively want to deny any trace of racism in my thoughts, attitudes, words and actions. I want to claim that I do not treat anyone differently because of the color of their skin. But I know that’s not true. I may not even be aware that I am doing it. But I know I am not immune from it.

I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia knowing few people of color. Communities just to the east and west of ours were very different, but we rarely ever ventured there. Glancing through my high school yearbook from forty-five years ago, our football, basketball, baseball and wrestling teams were all white. I heard about discrimination, prejudice and racial tensions, saw a little bit on TV, and talked some about it in school, but that was about as close as I got.

The student population at college was a little more diverse. However my cultural education there came mostly from friends and classmates who grew up in the Jewish faith, which I knew little about. I had a smattering of friends from different cultural backgrounds, but our primary focus on academics blurred most distinctions.

My first job with Bell Labs brought me into a little more of a multicultural setting. My department included a variety of engineers from India, Pakistan and the Middle East. As I struggled to tread water in that sea of genius, I was in the minority as a humble “code jockey.”

A few years later, I found myself at the seminary, making a significant career course correction. Though you’ll find them all over the world, the Lutheran church is predominantly white European and Scandanavian in tradition. I had a few black classmates, but as I struggled to tread water in another sea of genius, this time theological, race was the least of my worries.

And then came vicarage. For those unfamiliar with that term, a vicarage is an year-long internship at a church half-way through residential seminary education. A coalition of ten churches in Baltimore secured a grant to host five vicars a year for three years. Would I be willing to go to the inner city for a year? “Sure, why not?” said this naive suburban white student about to marry a young lady from rural southern Indiana. That’s when it got real.

The two churches we would serve put us up in a row house in a neighborhood where we were the only white people for miles. The only exception was two other vicars who lived next door to us in an adjoining house that year. The house had been burned out during a riot a number of years ago. With a little repair and paint, it was inhabitable. (Note: Were she to describe it, my wife would not use that adjective.) On the other side of our house, across a small yard, was a black Lutheran congregation where I would learn to preach and teach. Across the street was an elementary school attended by at least six hundred children all from black families.

The culture shock was seismic. I was told to wear my clerical shirt most of the time. At that time and in that community, the clergy were held in high regard. Our neighbors knew who we were and why we were there, and they looked out for us. The children quickly discovered our dogs and came over often to run around the yard with them. The sounds of the street lasted into the early morning hours, including music, loud conversation, even louder cars and gunshots. The church doors were shut and locked when it was time to start worship.

It took months to get used to our situation. I felt safe enough to go for a run in the early morning when no one was yet out on the street. We became comfortable shopping in local grocery stores, tasting unfamiliar foods and patronizing local businesses. Having two large dogs made us feel more secure. (Large dogs were also well-respected.) I cut my preaching teeth by preaching every other week while my wife got some experience in social work. I learned much from other pastors in black clergy caucuses whose meetings I attended. I had so much fun tutoring neighborhood children and taking some of the teens to summer camp.

Sometime during that year, something clicked. It wasn’t really racial distinctions we were adapting to. It was life in an inner city. It was life in the south (south of the Mason-Dixon line). It was life in an industrial urban setting. The foods we learned to eat were local blue crabs and oysters as well as greens and sweet potato pie. The choir sang pieces from a rich southern gospel tradition, creating harmonies we never tired of hearing. Not only did we grow comfortable in that setting, but we missed it after our year there was up. I am so grateful for the pastors and people of that community who taught us so much.

We had no idea where ministry would take us. My wife had no idea she would one day be sleeping in a small bug hut on a concrete floor in Haiti, just six months after the devastating 2010 earthquake. We had no idea that we would find ourselves out in the middle of Kenya and Madagascar, sleeping under mosquito nets, eating interesting food, not daring to drink the water and hoping we didn’t have to use the squat pot out back. Each and every time we would reminisce, “If we could survive that year in the city, we can do this!” Each and every time, the people we met and helped were so gracious, so appreciative, and so caring.

To tell you the truth, I think we had a harder time adapting to life at my first church in eastern Connecticut. It took us longer to get used to the New England attitudes and culture, where the population was all white. I also think it was harder to truly feel comfortable at my second parish in Iowa, where life revolved around agriculture. My experience just didn’t equip me to talk intelligently about hog farming, soybeans, hail insurance or commodity futures.

My third and current church in Florida was a refreshing change. The congregation and community was well-seasoned with people from Jamaica, Honduras, Barbados, India, the Philippines, Russia, Germany, Cambodia, Suriname, and Canada. And that just felt right. It still does.

So where am I going with all this? There are times when I feel suspicious or negative about someone whose skin color is different than mine, which some would call a racist attitude. But in such moments I have learned to pause and ask myself, “Why?” Why do I feel that way? What do I really know about that person? Are they in any way a threat to me? Most of the time, they’re not.

More importantly, I’ve learned to ask, “What’s that person’s story?” And, “What can they teach me?” I am grateful for all who have shared their stories and taught me much over the years. Those simple questions do not pretend to ignore the differences but instead leads me to value and appreciate them. Maybe that’s a good place to start.

Posted in Ministry, visiting

Hospital visit day

Another part of pastoral care is visiting members in the hospital. By grace, all my visits today were at the closest hospital. There have been days when I have had visits in Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. But today, I got to stay in my home town of Palm Coast.

I scored a parking spot right outside the main visitor entrance. But since they were painting that area, I had to walk all the way around to reach the doorway. I stopped at the front desk to ask one of the volunteers for a room number for “M”, whom I had seen in ICU two days ago. I had hoped that she had moved, but the very nice volunteer gave me the same room number.

I made my way to the elevator, but not before getting some disinfectant for my hands. I rode the elevator to the second floor and headed to the ICU waiting room. There I called and asked if I could visit “M.” They said, “Come on through.” “M” was there with her husband. She was doing just a little better than my last visit, but was far from being well. The ICU is not a place to stay for long, so I said a prayer with them and headed out. I said another unspoken prayer on the way out for her and for her caregivers. They can use all the help they can get.

I made my way out of ICU and down the hall to see “J” who had been recovering from surgery for the last four days. I hoped he would be just about ready to go home, but he was really having trouble breathing. His surgical site had healed well, but he needed more time to recover fully. I could tell he wasn’t feeling well, so I only stayed long enough to say a quick prayer. I left to let the nurses do their work.

In the seating area by the elevators, I sat to call “J’s” wife and let her know I had stopped by and to make sure she was doing OK. Nervous at first, she soon calmed as we chatted. She would soon be on her way to the hospital.

I thought I had finished my rounds for the day, but as I headed out to my car, I caught sight of a friend, a nurse, whom I had just prayed for this past Sunday. I stopped to talk to “C,” whom I hadn’t seen for a long time. I told her we had prayed for her in church the past Sunday. She brought me up to date on her own condition, her husband, and future treatments. It was a gracious and timely meeting, that was arranged by God. He often makes sure I am in the right place at the right time. And for that, I am thankful.

My visits were done for the day, but on my drive home I had a great conversation with Jesus about all that I experienced. It’s always good to debrief after my rounds.

Posted in Ministry

A (mostly) nursing home day

One of the realities and responsibilities of my pastoral ministry is the cycle of visits to members who can’t get out to worship with us on Sundays. Once a month I endeavor to get to those we call “shut-in” or “homebound” to bring them Holy Communion. Some of them are in nursing homes, others in assisted living, and still others live at home. Sometimes I spread them out over the month, but today I decided I would get to all my nursing home members, plus one at home receiving nursing care.

They’re all spread out over two counties, so I started with the furthest away, about a thirty-minute drive from church. “J” has been in a care facility for about eight months now. I try to get there just as she is finishing her lunch and just before her husband arrives to spend the afternoon with her. She is eighty-six. He is ninety. I typically find her in the common room and sit and chat with her and other at her table. They are always curious to learn about me and share with me where they are from. But today, I found “J” in her room, dozing, with a full lunch tray in front of her. When I said her name, she woke and greeted me, glanced at her lunch and asked, “What is that?” I identified the broccoli and au gratin potatoes, but I wasn’t really sure what kind of meat was smothered in gravy. Anyway, she didn’t look that hungry. We chatted briefly about her youngest daughter who had just gotten married. Two nurses walked in and said that they had just called the ambulance to take “J” to the hospital for some tests and treatment. I knew my window of opportunity would be brief, so I gave her communion and prayed with her. Just in time. The EMTs arrived to transport her. Upon returning to my car, I let her husband know I had been there, where they were taking her, and reminded him he could call if he needed anything.

Next up was “M,” who had been in another care facility about twenty minutes away. As I arrived, she had just returned from getting a haircut. She put away some towels from the chair at the side of her bed and we visited for a while. She’s been there since last summer. Today we talked a bit about her love for the Orlando Disney attractions. That’s why she and her husband moved to Florida years ago. Sadly, he died soon after, but she and her family made frequent trips to Disneyworld. She can’t quite understand why her daughter left her there, a conversation we have each time I come to visit. She wouldn’t be safe alone, so I am thankful for the care she receives there. “M” shares that it’s been a busy day, and I sense she’s a little tired, so I read some scripture to her, give her communion and pray with her.

Visit number three was the home of “K,” who hadn’t gotten out much for about two years, since her husband died. If not for her two sons who lived there with her, she would have had to be in a nursing care center long ago. Their caregiving responsibilities had exponentially increased three months ago when “K” fell and injured her shoulder and wrists. About a year ago, since she had some issues using the phone, we agreed that I would just stop by once a month to visit. One of her sons greeted me at the door when I arrived, just as “K” was getting up from an early afternoon nap. She is always so glad to see me. After a few minutes of chatting about how she was doing, the conversation transitioned to her late husband and many other family members she missed but remembered. Her recollection of family history amazes me. Details of names, dates, occupations, locations and conversations poured out as “K” wove together a complex monologue. I know she was simply glad to have someone to talk to.

On to my final visit of the day, “C,” who has been in her care location for about 18 months. Her memory has waned, but she always knows me and makes me laugh. However, I know she will forget my visit just moments after I leave, so I write the date on my business card her bulletin board. Her husband, who comes each morning to see her, sees the communion cup and asks about our visit, which she never remembers. Today, her door was closed and I could hear lots of activity from the room, so I sat and waited in the hallway. After about ten minutes, two caregivers came out and it was my turn. I shared with her much about seasonal worshipers and visitors to our church. She just smiles and listens. After communion we pray and I head home.

Every three or four weeks, I step into their “homes” and worlds with the precious gifts of God’s grace. Today’s rounds took about four hours to complete. I probably spent more time driving than actually interacting, but I’ve learned to never underestimate the value of a visit like that. There is indeed power in the Word and the Sacrament to touch the heart of someone who will most likely see the Lord face to face sooner than I will. Each one reminds me of the blessing of caring for the least of these his brothers and sisters.

Posted in church, Ministry, worship

In your shoes

Photo by Radek Skrzypczak on Unsplash

For this post I am going to try and put myself in your shoes. The shoes of someone who is a member of our church, who has come faithfully for a number of years, but recently begun to waver in regularity. What is that like, what do you expect, and what’s your vision of the future?

You see, I don’t have that option. Not yet, anyway. I have to be there every week whether I like it or not. Hey, when the preacher is absent, people notice! But one day I won’t be the preacher. I’ll be an attender, a worshiper, a statistic, a member, or whatever.

What if I just stop attending? Will someone call and ask, “Hey, where have you been? We’ve missed you.” Do I want someone to call? Or do I just to be able to do something else? Do I just want to be left alone?

This is such a good question for pastors and laypeople alike. I was taught that you must know who is not there and follow up with them. Absent from worship for three weeks? You better be on the phone or at their door. One more week and they are gone.

But what if those folks don’t want to be called? What if they just want to be left alone? What if they just need a break? I know, I shouldn’t be taking their side. But if I didn’t attend, and didn’t want to get up on a Sunday morning to attend worship, would I want a pastor chasing me down? Some might. I’m thinking many wouldn’t. I’m not sure I would.

Which leads me to my next question. How much time should I (pastors) spend chasing down people who don’t want to come to church? Oh, come on, you know there will always be families and individuals who considers themselves “members” who never actually show up. Are they lost sheep? Or are they not sheep at all?

When the crowds walked away from Jesus, he didn’t pursue them. He wanted willing followers. Some followed him, some who were a part of his flock, some who knew his voice. And some of them had their issues, like Peter and Judas.

At a recent pastor’s conference, I heard a brother say he spent Sunday afternoons going around to the homes of those who hadn’t been in worship that morning. Holy cow. I appreciate your commitment. But I’m not doing that. Maybe I’m not doing my job. So be it. But maybe you are taking yours too seriously. Either way if  the kingdom of God is all about righteousness, peace, and joy, I think we can all relax a little, go out to lunch, take a nap, and let God do the heavy lifting.

Posted in Ministry

Everclear margaritas

yuanbin-du-87642It was the spring of 1982, a significant year for me. I had quit my job at Bell Labs in New Jersey and moved to Austin, TX to begin a new job with a friend of mine who was helping to start a new company. They were going to make deep oil well probes to check the pressure far below the surface. I would be the programmer, working alongside some engineers who would design the hardware. Coding is a hot topic now. Back then I was doing assembly language programming on 8086 Intel chips.

Within two months, the company dissolved and I found another job with Bausch and Lomb, a division of Houston Instrument, just before the advent of CAD/CAM. My division programmed these massive tabletop printers for architectural drawings. It was really cool to see the pens whip around a huge sheet of paper to render a drawing.

Anyway, it was during this time that I realized I enjoyed everything I was doing with the church more than anything I ever did with my job. The pastor who confirmed me told me I should become a pastor, but I never gave that any more thought. Till now, when a vicar at my Texas church said the same thing nine years later. Hmm. Is that even a possibility? After all, I didn’t study any theology as an undergraduate. Could I really do that? My vicar and pastor assured me I could. In fact, lots of seminary students were second career.

So I applied. I sent off my application to Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN, where there were more second career guys than system guys. “System” guys went to a Concordia undergraduate school and majored in pre-seminary studies. I wasn’t a “system” guy. I had a liberal arts degree in Math.

Well, if I was going to go to the seminary and study to become a pastor, I wanted to start doing things that pastors did. What could I do? I could go out and make evangelism visits. In the context of my south Austin church, this meant following up on Sunday morning visitors to worship. The evangelism committee consisted of the vicar and his wife, a couple of young women, another guy and me. I think we got together on a Tuesday night, divided up some index cards with contact information on them, and went out to knock on doors and thank them for worshiping at our church. Hopefully, this would lead to further conversation.

My memories are a bit hazy (and you’ll learn why in just a bit), but I think we had some good visits and good conversations. I’ll be honest, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was just willing to learn. After we attempted our visits, we reconvened at a certain time and place to debrief. On some nights we would meet at a little Mexican cantina that served Everclear margaritas.

Some of you are thinking, “What’s that?” Others are thinking, “Whoa!” Everclear is 190 proof grain alcohol. (In college, I learned that grain alcohol was an ingredient in Purple Jesus punch.) As you can imagine, throw a shot of that into a margarita and it is definitely party time. I was told, you can only have one. Halfway through my drink, I knew they were right. No one needs more than one of those. Not even on evangelism night!

Few know it, but this is one of the factors that contributed to my deciding to pursue studying for the pastoral ministry. After knocking on a few doors and taking a few sips, I thought, “You know, I think I can do this.” Of course I had no idea all that would be involved in being a pastor, but this was certainly a plus.

I never got to be a part of an evangelism team like this again. I’ve gone out on plenty of visits with plenty of other people, but we never took the time to share our experiences over a delicious and potent beverage. Since I’ve been in Florida, I’ve had some fascinating theological discussions at Tiki bars and beachside wineries, but none of them were quite like my experiences in Austin. If you were to ask me who was most influential in my decision to become a pastor, these dear friends just might be at the top of my list!



Posted in Grace, Life, Ministry

When the pastor came to visit me

empty apartmentIn 1979, I had just moved to New Jersey into my first apartment to begin my first job out of college at Bell Labs. After a few visits, I found the congregation who would be my church family for the next three years, Luther Memorial in Tinton Falls. Gorgeous location just a stone’s throw away from the horse farms in Colts Neck. The congregation immediately welcomed me, got me involved in the choir, youth ministry and teaching on Sundays. I got to play a lot of trumpet for worship, too. In fact, they gave me a key so I could come and practice there, since the paper thin walls of my apartment prevented me from playing at home.

Before long, the pastor called and asked to come and visit. “Sure. Anytime.” Continue reading “When the pastor came to visit me”

Posted in Grace, Ministry

“You shouldn’t have to do that.”

not-my-job“You shouldn’t have to do that.”

I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve heard that sentence lately. But I can’t. I’ve lost count.

Due to a plethora of factors, I’ve had to step in the gap and take on a few jobs I’ve haven’t done for  while. When both of my guitar players had other work and family commitments, I led the praise service music. When it was time to begin planning Vacation Bible School, A person was needed to draw together a group of leaders to get that week off the ground. I stepped in this year. When our youth group leader had all her free time sucked into the family business, I found myself meeting with our middle and high school youth. Every step along the way I heard, “You shouldn’t have to do that.”

Maybe they are right. Maybe I should have just stood back and let those things go undone. But I didn’t. I stepped in and led the music, recruited leaders and met with the youth. While others debated the merits of my actions, I stepped in and did what I believe needed to be done. (As I write this, the debate rages in my mind: do I dare post this?)

First things first: I enjoy doing all these things. I enjoy our worship music, I thoroughly enjoy the Vacation Bible School experience, and I love working with our youth. It’s not an imposition. No one is forcing me to do those things. It’s an opportunity to do some of the things I can do and actually enjoy doing.

Second, there are some things I just can’t ignore. Like Sunday, for instance. Sunday comes right on schedule each week, and God’s people will faithfully gather for worship around Word and Sacrament, God’s gifts of grace. It doesn’t require much of me to play a few chords to accompany that blessing.

Third, no one else has yet stepped up to do any of those things. And I am OK with that. I’ve been in this call for twenty years (and in pastoral ministry for thirty) and I’ve learned that God fills in the gaps at the right time with the right people for the job. In between, I might just have be the temp who bridges one season to the next. When the prophet Isaiah got a taste of God’s grace in Isaiah 6, he said, “Here am I; send me.” Mercy moves you to do some amazing things.

So I played guitar for worship today. We survived and God was glorified. I am spearheading our Vacation Bible School. I’ve got all my station leaders in place. I will be here this week to meet with the youth group — and since some of our seniors are leaving for college soon, I am really looking forward to that meeting. I feel like I’m not doing all that much, but I have a front row seat to seeing some of the things that God is doing! Filling in the gaps can be quite rewarding.

I’m debating the wisdom of posting my thoughts tonight. I may be misunderstood. Let’s face it, I probably will be misunderstood. But it helps me clarify my thoughts, settle my soul and navigate the path ahead. By the way, I am thankful for all who hold up my arms, pray for me, make great (and wise) suggestions and keep me humble along the way.