Thursday, August 30, 2012


A few days ago, we received the advertisement for our local hardware store: AL&M in Sealy and Columbus.  There on the pages was an intriguing piece of equipment.  A hand held bug zapper.

Apparently, these little things have been on the market for quite some time, but for some reason, this was the first time I had seen it.*  I knew it was a must purchase.
Living in the country with dogs and compost piles means an excess of flies.  Couple this with a spouse who absolutely hates the darn things (and has broken several fly swatters to boot), and there was no doubt the thing needed to be added to the arsenal--provided it worked.

After visiting one of my shut-ins in Sealy yesterday, it was off to the store to pick one up.  I think my wife was a little surprised that I actually picked one up.  Didn't think she believed I'd actually do it, but it goes toward our housing allowance.  To me, there was only the possible down side that it wouldn't work.

My wife was the first to open the package and put it all together.  Immediately, she began pursuing a fly that just happened to be in the house.  It didn't seem to work.  "Which side do I use?" she asked.

You know what's coming, don't you?  Yep, your's truly tested the thing on himself, and let me tell you, the results are shocking.  Not stand your hair on end shocking, but enough to make you jump.  (Please see * below.)

So, we knew the thing was charged, but would it actually kill flies and mosquitoes and other such pests?

My wife finally killed the fly zooming around the kitchen, but as I watched, I personally believe it was because she used the racket as a fly swatter.  The ultimate test came later that night, after the kids were in bed.

For some reason, it seems like every night, there is a fly buzzing around our bed.  Last night was no exception.  My wife ran to get the hand held bug zapper.  Darn fly kept buzzing back and forth back and forth as she moved from one side of the bed to the other.

Finally, I said, "Let me see that thing."

The fly buzzed toward me.  I hit the button, and swung.

ZAP!  Blue spark!  Sizzle!  Dead fly.  (I actually think it disintegrated.) 

Celebration ensued.  That the racket actually worked, and that we could read a few moments before bed without a darn fly buzzing around our heads. 

I'm wondering about putting in an order for several hundred of these things and then have them wired to a console in the church sanctuary.  If someone starts falling asleep or if we are in need of a "Mississippi Squirrel Revival", then I could press a few buttons. 

ZAP!   Problems solved.  :-)

* My wife informed me that my mother-in-law actually purchased one of these things for my brother-in-law when he was serving in Iraq.  Apparently, they didn't kill too many flies with the thing, but they had an awful lot of fun with the zapper.  Think about my test above, and then use your imaginations as to what a bunch of Marines might actually do with such a "toy."

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: Tradition's Place

There are certain sermons a pastor preaches from time to time that could potentially get him in trouble. This is one of those sermons. It has to deal with tradition, and when dealing with traditions whether they are in families or in congregations or in companies, one is usually walking on shaky ground. If you don’t think so, try to change a particular, cherished tradition in your family, in your church, or in your business one of these days. See what the consequences are. I’m not saying you will come to bodily harm, but if I were you, I’d make sure and protect myself.

Onward into the sermon. Perhaps you might have noticed a little detail which has been absent from our midst for the past couple of weeks. It’s something which is usually front and center in our church; yet because of its ever presence, it is easy to overlook from time to time. I am speaking right now about the eternal flame candle which hangs on the wall next to the altar. For those of you who have not noticed it, it is not flickering back there. It is not lit. There is a reason for this, a reason I will articulate shortly.

Now, this isn’t the first time this candle has gone out or has not been lit. There have been numerous times one candle has expired during the week, and our faithful altar guild ladies replaced it as soon as possible. During those times, I sometimes have a streak of irreverence that runs through me. Before I even realize what is happening, I will usually quip with a smile on my face, "I guess God’s not here right now." So far, no one’s hit me for that one. That might change after this service is done. But for the past couple of weeks, it has burned very rarely. For the past couple of weeks most of the time it has stood without light and without flame. For you see, a few weeks ago, when replacing the candle within, the glass holder broke. The bottom is cracked beyond repair and rather than risk an accident by trying to replace the candle within, or having the glass break and the candle fall out and light the carpet on fire–I mean, I know some pastors who talk about lighting a fire under their congregations, but that would be ridiculous–the decision was made to keep the candle unlit.

Yes, there have been a few folks who have noticed. We have heard their questions as to why the eternal flame was not lit. We’ve explained the reasons, and folks are generally o.k. with it. And, for those who are interested, the council just approved use of some of our memorial funds to buy a new eternal flame so that our congregation’s tradition of having one lives on.

But what do you think would have happened if someone decided, "We don’t need that eternal flame. We can spend that money on something better like giving it to the food pantry to feed people."? How do you think such a comment would have gone over? Do you think it would have been accepted? I mean, what if the person would have been insistent and said, "God is still here even if that flame goes out. We don’t need a candle to remind us God is here. We can keep that in our hearts alone. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that we need a candle like that in our church buildings. It does say a lot about what we should be doing with our money though. Why keep spending money on something we have to keep up when we could use those funds to spread the good news of Jesus." Such arguments are indeed true. Do you think folks would actually listen?

Probably not. Now, no one here this morning would argue that because the eternal flame isn’t lit, God is somehow absent. No one here this morning would argue that it isn’t important to feed the hungry or spread the good news of Jesus Christ. We absolutely know these are paramount in the life of the church. But we also know that traditions are important in the life of the church as well. We know that traditions help give us unique identities and set us apart from other congregations and families and businesses. In the church, they bring about good order and help us to teach the faith to one another.

In fact, this is exactly what the reformers understood in the Lutheran Church’s foundational documents, particularly the Apology to the Augsburg Confession. Listen to what is written under article 15:

Although the holy Fathers themselves had rites and traditions, they did not regard them as useful or necessary for justification. They did not obscure the glory or work of Christ but taught that we are justified by faith for Christ’s sake, not for the sake of these human rites. They observed these human rites because they were profitable for good order, because they gave people a set time to assemble, because they provided an example of how all things could be done decently and in order in the churches, and finally because they helped instruct the common folk. (Book of Concord p. 218)

Part of this is exactly why we have the eternal flame here in this congregation. Again, it’s not because anyone truly believes that without it, God is somehow absent, but because it helps remind us of God’s presence–and we also have the opportunity to tell others what it represents. For if someone asks, "Why do you have that candle up there burning all the time?" We can respond, "It helps remind us that God is always with us always shining a light into the darkness. It also helps remind us that Christ told us, ‘Let your light so shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’" This is a good tradition to have and uphold.

But what if the tradition became too important? What if the tradition overshadowed our calling to spread the good news of Jesus Christ? What if it became more important to have an eternal flame than to buy Sunday School materials for our kids or to give to the food pantry or to provide meals for our senior service? What if people became more angry about the eternal flame not being lit instead of being angry there are those who have not yet been reached with the good news of Jesus? What would that mean?

Our Gospel lesson this morning speaks to that loudly and clearly. Jesus lambasts the Pharisees for putting human traditions above God’s Word. The Pharisees believed they were honoring God by setting aside money to give to Him–that’s the meaning of Corban in this text. They believed they were doing something good and holy and just by saving all this money to give to God. However, when they did this, they neglected one small item. God’s Word commanded them to honor their father and mother–that’s commandment number four, by the way. Instead of using their wealth to care for their parents as God’s Word commanded, they followed a human tradition.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with giving money to God. Lord knows, this church wouldn’t be afloat if you weren’t generous in your giving to the Lord. Yet, motivations matter, and if we all decided we didn’t like our parents or our kids or anyone else who wanted or needed our money, and we decided to give it to the church instead of them, then we are giving in spite. Giving in spite isn’t exactly what God expects out of us. God expects us to follow His Word–not only in giving but in our actions as people and as a congregation. Let us remember this when it comes to our traditions. As important as those traditions are, may they never make null the Word of God. Amen.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Through Burnout and Back: Taking Time, Really

Back in the days of seminary, they warned us, "You will have weeks where you have to work 60 hours or so.  Take time off to recuperate."

In my Bowen Family Systems class, they have repeatedly told us, "If you have to work on your day off, take another day the following week."

I thought I had been doing a pretty good job of such things until I hit burnout.  Then, I discovered I really hadn't been doing what I had been taught to do. 

Of course, I made excuses:

"Oh, it's just a couple of minutes I'm having to spend on this.  It's no big deal."

"Well, I really need to get this done.  It can't wait another day."

"These folks really, really need a visit.  I've got to get it done."

And so I pushed it.  Oftentimes too far.  I made funeral preparations and worked on funeral sermons during vacations.  I took moments on my day off to open up buildings and field phone calls and text messages.  I would take a day from vacation to conduct a graveside service.  All of it added up, and the sad part is, I didn't really realize it.

So, when I hit that wall of burnout, I resolved to take back my time, really.  And I discovered a couple of things:

1. It's very good physically, mentally, and spiritually to do just that.

2. It's very hard to break something you've started.

3. Guilt will rear its ugly head.

Last week, I worked close to 60 hours handling a Bible Camp, a member's funeral, our Scholarship Committee's dance and fundraiser, confirmation, and the parties which ensued.  It was a very, very long week emotionally and physically.

So, what did I do about it?

Well, my children didn't start school until today.  Yesterday was their last day of summer, and because I worked so many hours the previous week, I claimed my time.  I didn't go to the office at all yesterday: I spent the time with my family and had one final fling before school started.

We had promised them we would take them to see the Disney movie, "Brave."  Mission finally accomplished.

We've started reading them Bible stories each evening out of The Action Bible.   Now, the kids want to read (or at the very least look at the pictures) even after we finished.  We only had one Bible.  Problem is now solved.  We ate at Chick-Fil-A, and the kids had a great time on the indoor playground.  We shopped around for back to school clothes but really found nothing to add to their wardrobes.  We ended up eating at a nice Italian food place (where kids eat free on Mondays and Tuesdays) for the evening meal.  All in all, it was a great day with the family.

Were there things that I could have been doing at the office?  Yep.

Were there people who needed to be seen?  Yep.

Were there people who needed to be checked on?  Yep.

Were there things at the office which needed checking up on?  Yes, as well.

But in 12 years of ordained ministry, I have finally let it sink in:  There will always be those things which need doing.  There are always folks who need a call or a visit or what have you.  And when you have quite a few people in your congregation, there is not enough of you to go around.  You've got to do what you can and leave the rest for another day.

For someone like myself who has usually prided himself in his ability to go above and beyond the call of duty, this is a very difficult step.  It's literally made me have to change my nature and change how I approach things. 

But will it be worth it?

I think so.  I need my family and personal time--for my sanity and theirs.  Really.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why Quantum Physicists Don't Get Fat

Yep, that's the title to a book I've just finished reading.  My wife stumbled across it in the free e-reader books for the day. 

First, I'm glad it was free.
Second, I'm glad it was short and that I didn't spent too much time having to read it.
Third, I'm really skeptical about the premise of the book.

The guy who wrote the book tries to apply quantum mechanics to weight loss management.  He argues the current weight loss industry is built upon old, Newtonian science.  He argues, almost solely based upon his own experience, that a shift in how we approach weight loss is necessary.

Frankly, I can sum it up very quickly: try to have a positive attitude about everything you do to help you lose weight.  Convince yourself you are enjoying exercise.  Convince yourself you are happy eating fruits and vegetables and lean meats.  Believe whatever diet program you are undertaking works, and you will see results.

The author bases much of his understanding on the idea if we believe something, then we will see it.  Now, I've used that maxim when it comes to faith more than once.  For when it comes to seeing God active in the world, you won't see Him unless you believe in Him.  Under the guise of quantum physics, the author tries to apply such thinking to weight loss.  If you believe you will see results in a weightloss program, you will see it, and see it fast.

Your's truly is skeptical--mainly because I believe the author takes quantum mechanics to the extreme.

He uses Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle to discuss reality.  The principle states that we do not know where a given electron will be when we are not observing it.  There are a range of probabilities where it could be, and when we finally observe the electron, then we will see it in a given place. 

Some have extrapolated this into the larger reality we call the world saying that our brains create reality.  We expect certain things to happen and be there, and they happen in that fashion or are found where we expect them.  If we just believed strongly enough, we could literally shape the world differently. 

Now.  Go ahead.  Try it.  Believe with all your heart you can stick your finger in a light socket without getting shocked (assuming the light socket is attached to an electrical current).  Believe you can leap off a 10 story building without a parachute and not get hurt.  Believe all you want that you can play the lottery with the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and win every time.  See what happens.  Have all the positive beliefs in these things you want and see if they come together for you.  Tell me if it works.

Our perceptions may shape the way we see reality, but they are not reality itself. 

Furthermore, one must realize even quantum physics is incomplete.  Quantum physics describes very well the way the microscopic world works.  As of yet, (and probably never) quantum physics has not been able to describe gravity and interactions between large objects.  The author of Why Quantum Physicists Don't Get Fat time and again says that quantum physics is the most accurate science we have, but he's wrong.  

In more than one way.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


I've seen a link on Facebook to a quote by Mark Lowry.  It's an intriguing quote:

Love the sinner and hate the sin?  How about: love the sinner and hate your own sin!  I don't have time to hate your sin.  There are too many of you.  Hating my sin is a full-time job.  How about you hate your sin, I'll hate my sin and let's just love each other.


At face value, this sounds pretty good.  I mean, it would seem to follow right along with Jesus' teaching about removing the log from one's own eye before trying to remove the speck from one's neighbor's eye.  (Matthew 7:3-5)  Yet, in practice?  To really practice such a thing?


Let's say a particular Christian business owner pushes his employees to the limit.  He pays them minimally.  He offers poor health insurance.  He doesn't give personal days or allow for family emergencies.  "Your father die?  Sorry, you have a job.  I can't afford to give you time off with pay.  You don't work, you don't get paid."  The business man commits injustice after injustice, and we aren't supposed to hate the sin, confront the sin, and hold the gent accountable? 

A guy walks into a movie theater and guns down a bunch of patrons.  We aren't supposed to hate what he did?  We're just supposed to concentrate on loving the guy?

While I understand what Lowry is trying to say, perhaps he could have said it better.  I posted once before on this whole love the sinner/hate the sin issue.  Some folks are uncomfortable with the saying.  I understand that, but the reality is, the saying is truthful--and necessary.

Hating the sin leads to action.  The very fact God hates our sin led Him to action--first to try and get us to stop by giving us the law and punishing us when we failed to follow it, and then through a response to the grace bestowed by Jesus' death and resurrection.  God doesn't stop hating our sins.  Period.  You would be hard pressed to find any scripture which argues for such a thing.

And there is a little passage from the book of Ephesians (5:1) which gives us insight into how we are to model our lives:

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.

God loves us.  He hates our sin, but He no longer punishes (disciplines) us for breaking the law.  (Galatians 3: 24-25)

What would it look like for us to do likewise?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Who Gives More?

I would not have written the headline which appears in the article, but you know the news media.  They're always ready to incite conflict.  The headline read:

What I would have written:

Religious People Dig Deeper

From the article buried several paragraphs in:

Religion is the big factor here. "Regions of the country that are deeply religious are more generous than those that are not," the Chronicle said.

Most of the headlines one sees regarding religious belief are negative.  There are many who relish the opportunity to bash the Church or other religious groups because of the actions of their members.  The news media is always ready to run headlines about the next clergy sex scandal--the next fight over homosexuality--the next battle over traditional marriage--the next "religious nutcase" willing to kill himself and others--the groups wishing to take a woman's right to choose what to do with her body away from her--or whatever other negative news they can print. 

I am surprised the author of the article even puts this sentence in the article.  Rarely does anyone print the good that religious folks accomplish, but those of us who are engaged in religious matters know how much good is put forth.  We know the acts of charity and kindness accomplished by our members and those of other faith groups.  We see it all the time.

Religious faith makes a difference in the willingness one has to give and support others, and according to this article, it is a major difference.

Remember that the next time someone tries to tell you religious people are the cause of all the fighting and problems in the world. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: Come, Receive Jesus

I’ve told the following story before, but I think it bears retelling for this morning’s sermon:

A couple had two little boys, ages 8 and 10, who were excessively mischievous. They were always getting into trouble and their parents knew that, if any mischief occurred in their town, their sons were probably involved.

They boys' mother heard that a clergyman in town had been successful in disciplining children, so she asked if he would speak with her boys. The clergyman agreed, but asked to see them individually. So the mother sent her 8-year-old first, in the morning, with the older boy to see the clergyman in the afternoon.
The clergyman, a huge man with a booming voice, sat the younger boy down and asked him sternly, "Where is God?"

They boy's mouth dropped open, but he made no response, sitting there with his mouth hanging open, wide-eyed. So the clergyman repeated the question in an even sterner tone, "Where is God!!?" Again the boy made no attempt to answer. So the clergyman raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy's face and bellowed, "WHERE IS GOD!?"

The boy screamed and bolted from the room, ran directly home and dove into his closet, slamming the door behind him. When his older brother found him in the closet, he asked, "What happened?"

The youngest brother gasped for breath and replied, "We are in BIG trouble this time dude. God is missing and they think WE did it!"

I laugh nearly every time I hear that joke, because of the absurdity of it. I mean how can God go missing? Is it even possible? For many of us, the thought is almost unreal.

Yet, for some people, the thought is a very serious one. For some people the thought that God has gone missing isn’t just a joke but a reality. Sometimes, folks find themselves surrounded by circumstances they don’t understand; circumstances that drag them down; circumstances that blot out all forms of hope and happiness. Sometimes when faced with such circumstances and such crisis, people scream out, "WHERE IS GOD?" And they really, really mean it.

When someone asks such a question, it is not to be taken lightly or dismissed altogether. It demands an answer.

Most of the time, my default answer heads straight to the crucifixion of Jesus. Most of you know the story. Most of you know how Jesus was the Son of God who lived out God’s will perfectly. You know how He healed the sick, raised the dead, gave hope to the hopeless, fed the hungry, and brought God’s Word to the people. You also know the reward He got from humanity: being hung from a cross. Perhaps you also remember one of Jesus’ seven last words from the cross? Perhaps you remember when Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?" The ironic piece of that cry is the fact that Jesus is God incarnate. The ironic piece of that cry is God is hanging from the cross crying out such a thing.
The ironic piece of that cry is at the time when it seems like God is most absent, God is actually most present, hanging, suffering on that cross. When I point this out to people, I try to inform them that even though they perceive God’s absence, He is actually most present with them. Sometimes this helps.

But not always. Sometimes, they can’t fathom this understanding of God’s presence in the midst of their suffering. So, then I pull out another standby. I remind them of Jesus’ teaching of the last judgement in Matthew chapter 25. I remind them how Jesus informed His followers that on the day of judgement, they would be brought before Him. They would be informed that they would enter paradise for the times they had cared for Jesus. Remember how that one went? The saved would ask, "Lord, when did we care for you?" And Jesus would reply, "Whenever you fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited those sick and in prison–whenever you did such things for the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me." I remind folks that Jesus is those who suffer. Therefore, they may be Jesus to others at that moment which is a humbling thought indeed. Sometimes this works. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

But there is one other thing that must be breached. There is one other topic of conversation that must be brought to the front when people scream out, "WHERE IS GOD?" It is the topic of the sacrament.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus says, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever."

As I said last week, either the person who said this is indeed God or He is a nutcase. We as people of faith believe the former. We believe Jesus is God. We believe He has left us a gift of unbelievable power–a gift of unbelievable strength. He has left us His body and His blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Now, in one manner, this might cause us to cringe. I am reminded of the movie Gandhi were a Catholic priest is riding on top of a train with a bunch of Hindus. One of the men strikes up a conversation with the priest. The priest informs the man he is a Christian.

The Hindu replies, "Ah, yes. My sister is a Christian. She is a cannibal."

The priest says, "What?"

"Every week she eats the flesh of her Lord."

That’s a show stopper right there for some for eating a person’s flesh is very much outside the norm of acceptable human behavior. Which is why we as Lutherans believe in a little thing called the real presence of Christ in, with, and under the bread and wine. We do not believe the bread and wine in Holy Communion actually become the body and blood of Jesus–instead we believe His real presence is there in the Sacrament in a way we simply cannot explain or understand. When we eat, we eat and taste bread. When we drink, we drink and taste wine. Yet, somehow, in the midst of doing such things, we also believe we are receiving Jesus Himself. We believe He is entering into us: forgiving our sins and strengthening our faith.

This is a very important thing for us to remember when dealing with those who scream, "WHERE IS GOD?" For if all else fails, we can say, "Come with me. Come to worship with me, and when we have Holy Communion, come to the table with me. Have an open heart and mind when you head forward for you will find God. You will find Jesus. Come and receive Him and allow Him to strengthen your faith and forgive your sins. Come to the table and receive Jesus for He is God and He is longing to reach out to you in your pain, in your suffering, and in your questioning. No longer ask, ‘Where is God?’ for He is here in the bread and in the wine. Come, receive Jesus." Amen.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Flattening the Spare Tire

Since last September, I have been working out regularly to reshape my body.  Long story on the motivation on that one, but part of it involves superhero costumes and dressing up for Halloween. 

It's taken a while, but results are starting to show up.  I've increased my bicep measurement from 13.5" inches to 15.5".  Chest has gone from 42" to 44".  When I stand up straight, I've got a two pack, and that's where the frustration comes.  The spare tire around the mid section.  Nothing has seemed to work on that thing.

Believe me, I've tried.  Core exercises have been done repeatedly.  Diet has been changed: high protein, lower carbs, lots of vegetables--only one vice, a can of Dr. Pepper per day.  Extended cardio work performed.  Not much shrinkage.  Frustration.

But now, I'm trying something different.  Well, two things.  Most of the reading I have been doing suggests scrapping extended, paced cardio work for interval training.  Supposedly it burns fat better.  Made me start thinking.

I know several people who eat like things are going out of style and never gain weight.
I know others who eat like birds and can't lose a pound.
What's going on?

I've talked before about how the chemical Cortisol affects the body, and I'd like to revisit that little tidbit--at least as it was explained to me.

On the African savanna, when a lion approaches a herd of zebras, anxiety gets raised.  Fight or flight kicks in.  One of the chemicals produced in such a situation is cortisol.  Whenever a zebra bolts and sprints away from a lion, the cortisol gets used up.  This is a good thing because if cortisol remains in the body, it actually produces fat--particularly the fat which gets stored around the mid-section.  In people-the spare tire.

Many of the homeo-sapiens clan do not experience such acute cases of anxiety.  Instead, we have a much more malicious form of anxiety we experience: chronic anxiety.  We tend to be in a heightened state of anxiety throughout the day.  Work, family, reading or watching the news, closely following politics, feeling like we have to be busy at every waking second, all of these things produce some form of anxiety.  Most of the time, we worry about the possible outcomes in all of these areas.  We try to plan and prepare for the unexpected, and our anxiety levels rise.  Guess what, so do our cortisol levels.  And what do we do to expend that cortisol? 

Usually, not a lot.  And so, it helps us gain fat around the middle--no matter if we carefully watch our diets or not. 

So, what's the answer?  A lot of exercise gurus are saying interval training.  Short bursts of hard exercise followed by a more relaxed pace over and over again.  My theory: the short bursts are just like zebras running on the savanna--they are burning up the cortisol produced by our bodies.  As such, perhaps the interval exercises aren't so much burning fat as they are using up all the cortisol produced by our anxiety.  The result is the same--flattening the spare tire.

For my (hopeful) benefit, not only am I addressing the "flight" part of cortisol by incorporating interval training, but I am also using the "fight" portion.  Months ago, I bought a punching bag and then didn't use it much.  Because of this thinking, I've started knocking the stuffing out of it.  Three times a day. 

We'll see how the theory plays out in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Pastoral Visitation

Last months The Lutheran magazine had an intriguing article entitled "Forfeiting opportunity: Pastor house calls a relic of past?"

It was a good read all things considered, but a few red flags quickly were hoisted.

You might wonder why this might be so, after all, aren't pastors supposed to be in the homes of their parishioners, visiting with them, getting to know them, caring for them, etc., etc.  Well, yes. We are.  Pastoral visitation and house calls are part and parcel of the job.  I enjoy them.  I usually make one or two house calls per week.

"Only that?"  You might say.  "You should be making more."

Well, you have to understand my personal way of making calls.  I don't spend 10 minutes shooting the breeze.   For yours truly, a house call/home visit/hospital visit usually lasts at a minimum an hour.  Sometimes, I've spent a good two hours talking with someone.  One visit will take up almost an entire afternoon given driving times in the country.  A 10 minute visit might be o.k. for some, but I have found such visits rarely progress past, "How's the weather?"  To get through the superficial conversation and into deeper ministry issues requires time and effort--much more than a brief hello.

Now that this is out of the way, back to the article. 

There is something impressive about a congregation packed to the gills because, as the author seems to indicate, the pastor is working his tail end off to minister to his flock.  It seems the author tells us, "If you, as a clergy, would just visit your people, you would have a congregation full of people." 

The real explanation for the attendance would be revealed over the next couple of years when I discovered that the pastor had a secret. He made calls ... and calls ... and calls.

If a visitor came to a service, he was on their doorstep within a week. If a member missed a couple of Sundays for which he did not know the reason, he visited them. And when members lost loved ones, he placed the dates on his next-year's calendar and made a call on the anniversaries of the deaths, knowing it would be foremost in their minds.

Perhaps the author is correct.  Perhaps if people know the clergy person cares for them, they will show up and endure 30 minute sermons on systematic theology.  Perhaps, if someone is gone a week or two and the pastor shows up at their doors, whatever is bothering them--if anything is--can be worked through and resolved, and the person will return to church on a regular basis.  Nothing is wrong with this.

Until the pastor leaves.

Then, who is going to call upon the people who are missing for a couple of weeks?

Who is going to call on the shut ins?

Who is going to check up on those who visited the congregation?

In a very real way, the responsibility for maintaining and holding the congregation together has fallen upon this particular pastor.  He is the glue which is holding things together, and when he's gone, what happens?

In most cases, the congregation falls apart.  Why? 

Honestly, it's because folks have lost the understanding of what the Church is supposed to be.  It's not supposed to be the pastor/priest doing all the "stuff" of the Church.  There is only one time the word pastor appears in the entirety of the Bible, and it's in the book of Ephesians chapter 4:

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

The pastor's job is to equip the saints for the work of ministry.

Repeat: the pastor's job is to equip the saints for the work of ministry.

If a pastor is doing his/her job correctly, he/she isn't doing all the work of the congregation.  He/she is assisting, teaching, helping others realize the importance and helping them to do the things which keeps a congregation together.

The pastor not only visits the sick and shut in, he empowers members of his flock to do the same thing.

The pastor not only calls on visitors and helps them feel welcome, he empowers the members of his flock to do the same thing.

The pastor not only teaches his flock, he empowers them to teach others as well.

This way, when the pastor leaves, the ministry of the congregation continues with only a small hiccup in worship and preaching.  Otherwise, everything moves onward and forward as members are cared for by other members.  The ministry of a congregation then, isn't pastor centered, it's people centered.

How many congregations practice such a thing today?  And what would happen if they did?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Should a Clergy Pack Heat?

That was a question literally asked by a colleague following the shooting last week at a Sikh temple.   Apparently, there is a corporation or some other such entity training clergy to pack heat for the protection of their congregation's on Sunday morning.  After all, in today's U.S. society, safety is paramount, and someone must be ready to defend the innocent!  (For those not familiar with sarcasm, that last sentence is a fine, fine example.)

Now, let be start by saying I have no problem with gun ownership.  Neither do I have any issue with those who get a concealed/carry license.  I'm a hunter.  I use guns regularly.  They don't bother me.  I've even contemplated getting a concealed/carry license, and the only thing that has prevented me from doing so is the cost involved in purchasing a good pistol and the fees for the class.  There are other things I need to spend my money on right now.

I'm even going to go out on a limb and say that nearly all (there would be a few who would object) of the folks in my congregation would be absolutely o.k. with a pastor who packed heat.  I live out in the country, and most of my folks understand the use of a firearm as a tool.  They understand that out here you run across snakes on a regular basis, and there are other wild animals to contend with as well at times.  One morning while bike riding, I encountered a coyote.  Luckily, he was more scared of me than I was of him, but if he would have been rabid or temperamental, I would have been in trouble.  Such occasions warrant the use of firearms.

But in church?  In worship?

I've got a problem with a clergy person packing heat in the middle of the service--for a couple of reasons.

1. The biggie of course is Jesus' teaching.  He's pretty clear about violence and how a Kingdom person handles it.  "Turn the other cheek."  "Those who live by the sword, die by the sword."  Substitute gun, and there you have it.  It is not God's intent that we live in such a fashion.  Yeah, I know.  What about protecting the innocent?  I understand.  If someone breaks into my house, I wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger on someone who was trying to harm my family.  But when I am standing in front of a congregation with an alb on which represents being clothed with Christ, I am representing Him.  Furthermore, when Christians gather for worship, they are enacting the eternal worship which goes on in heaven.  I just can't picture Jesus up there packing heat.  It doesn't work in my book.

2. Well, what about if someone comes in and starts shooting, aren't you afraid to die?  In some ways, yes, I am.  I truly want to see my children grow up and participate in their lives.  I want my congregation members to have that same opportunities for their families and such.  Yet, one cannot live in fear, and if we take our faith seriously, we shouldn't.  We have nothing to fear from death.  Death has already been defeated, and so we shouldn't bat an eye.  I'm reminded of an old story I came across in a book by William White:

When his advancing army stormed into a small town, the general called his scouts before him. "Where are the citizens of this village?" he demanded.

"They have all fled in fear," the scouts replied.

"Is there no one left to pay tribute?" the general shouted.

"No one but the priest. He remains in the temple."

Quickly the general marched to the temple, burst through the doors and demanded to see the priest. After a search, the priest was found reading quietly in his study. The general, angry that the cleric refused to greet him as a conqueror, shouted, "Don’t you know that you are looking at one who can run you through without batting an eye?"

"Don’t you know," the priest replied, "that you are looking at one who can be run through without batting an eye?"

For a moment, the soldier stared at disbelief at the priest. Then, slowly, a smile danced on his lips. He bowed low and left the temple.

Such is the reality of one who walks with one foot in the Kingdom of God.

3. Shootings are pretty rare.  Yes, we've seen a string of them in the news the past couple of weeks beginning in Aurora, Colorado and ending yesterday in College Station, Texas.  But the chances of a person getting shot in such a fashion are very, very slim.  Unfortunately, the television brings this reality right into our homes on a regular basis, so we become convinced such things are common place.  They're not, and I believe we shouldn't act as if they are.  To quote Johnny Blaze in Ghost Rider, "You can't live in fear."

It is for these reasons, one will not see me pack heat as a clergy in worship. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: Either God or a Nutcase

I remember an incident that took place in my home congregation when I was about six or seven years old. As we got ready to worship, a man walked into the church. He was dressed in a white robe with a rope around his waist. His hair was straight and long. His beard and mustache were trimmed just right, and he looked like just about every picture of Jesus I had ever seen! Needless to say, this stranger really got my attention.

On this particular Sunday, my congregation was holding its annual meeting. Of course, part of that meeting was the discussion of the budget. Now, I wasn’t paying attention to the discussion. At six or seven, you really don’t care about such matters, but I did begin to care when the stranger spoke. "You are all going to hell," he said, "for talking about money in church."

That frightened me. A lot.

The freak out really started after the meeting was over and everyone was congregating around outside. Folks were engaged in fellowship and drinking iced tea and lemonade. I think we even had some cookies out there. I was playing under the shade of a giant tree. The stranger walked outside the doors of the church, stood at the top of the steps and in a loud voice with arms upraised shouted, "The peace of God which passes all understanding be with you always!" And with that, he walked down the street and away from the church. My dad checked the visitor registration book in the back of the church that day, and he informed us at dinner that the guest signed in with "Jesus of Nazareth."

I remember well that night. I was laying in bed. My mom was tucking me in, and I said, "I’m scared. I don’t want to go to hell like Jesus said."

Mom paused only a moment before saying, "Kevin, that man wasn’t Jesus. He was crazy."

I trusted my mom, and I was no longer scared. Yet, the incident was forever burned into my synapses. As I have grown and hopefully matured a little, I think back on this incident. I think about the reality of this guy coming into our church. I think about what he did and what he said, and I realize this guy was either Jesus, as he believed he was, or indeed, he was a nutcase. There is no middle ground.

C.S. Lewis once wrote the same thing about Jesus in his book Mere Christianity. Lewis says, "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [Jesus]: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse."

Those words from Lewis might sound harsh or over the top, but really think a moment about our Gospel lesson this morning. Really think through some of those statements we just heard a few moments ago. Don’t just glaze over them as we are wont to do. Hear them. I mean really hear them. One of our problems in the church today is that we have so many layers of interpretation placed on top of Jesus’ teachings that we fail to actually allow the teachings to penetrate our hearts and minds. We’ve had so many people tell us what Jesus meant by those sayings, we oftentimes fail to actually hear the sayings themselves. Instead, we hear the interpretation. Don’t hear the interpretation this morning. Hear what Jesus says, and then you tell me what you would do if some guy walked into the congregation this morning and said these things to you.

How would you react if someone waltzed in here, stood before all of us and said, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." What would you think if you heard a man stand in front of you and say, "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day."? How would your brain process a guy lecturing you and saying, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." Think about those statements. Think about what Jesus says. Really hear those words and don’t let what you have been taught about what they mean interfere with what you are hearing. Take those words at face value. What would you think if someone came up to you and said such a thing? Would you think the person was playing with a full deck? Would you honestly think the person who spoke such things was the Son of God?

Probably not. You’d probably tell your kids or grandkids the same thing my mom told me, "That guy is crazy."

In fact, that’s exactly what people said about Jesus. Remember that C.S. Lewis commented that you would rank such a person right up there with someone who says, "I am a poached egg." or you would believe the person was the Devil of Hell? Remember Lewis’ words I read earlier. Well, they said the same thing about Jesus.

Listen to these few verses from the book of Mark chapter 3. Beginning with the end of verse 19, "Then Jesus went home; 20and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’" In just four short verses, the Bible confirms exactly what C.S. Lewis says. People were saying Jesus was crazy and that he was the Devil from Hell.

So, our options are laid down on the table before us. Either we believe what Jesus said about himself is true–that indeed He is the Son of God, the bread of life which comes down from heaven and that the bread of life He offers the world is His flesh, or we believe that He is crazy or the Devil from Hell. That’s it. There’s no middle ground. C.S. Lewis concludes with these words, "You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God." Which will it be?

Today, Jesus invites us to trust in Him. Today, Jesus invites us to believe He is the bread of life–the only thing that can sustain us in this world today. Today, Jesus invites us to partake of Him and never hunger or thirst again. Today, Jesus invites us to believe that He is the living bread from heaven, and that if we partake of His flesh, we will live forever. These promises are quite astounding. In fact, these promises, if taken seriously, transform us. These promises, if taken seriously, change the way we operate in the world. They lead us to act and think differently even to the point where we might be called a nutcase. But if such a thing happens because we are following the Son of God, that’s not such a bad thing. We’re in good company. If they start to say the same things about us that they said about Jesus, we might just be on the right track. The track to abundant and eternal life. Amen.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Through Burnout and Back: Counseling

Yesterday I took a trip to San Antonio for counseling.

I know I probably could have found someone closer, but the guy I saw, I trust.  I'd seen him before, and he was helpful.

Yesterday was no exception.

Some folks have a misunderstanding of counseling.  They think a person goes to a counselor to have the counselor fix them.  After outlining the problem, the counselor comes up with a laundry list of things to do that will help the person overcome his or her (or the family's) situation.  Some counselors may operate in this fashion, but generally, they aren't the best ones.  The best counselors realize they are not there to fix you.  You have to fix yourself.  The counselor helps you see things you can't quite see yourself or tries to offer you different approaches to view the problem in a different way--perhaps opening up an avenue for you to change.

I spent an hour with the counselor talking about the issues of burnout and how I got caught in it.  I told him what I had done in the past three months to start recovering from it, and he was pleased with most of what I was doing and had done.

We spent some time trying to discern how I got caught in the processes that lead to burnout and discussed ways I could keep from falling into it again. 

There was nothing earth shattering.

There was no, "Do this and you will be o.k."

There was no, "Follow these steps and you will be healthy, wealthy, and wise."

I didn't expect them.  Didn't want them.

Just needed some help seeing things a little differently.  A few suggestions on how to keep doing this were welcome and will be implemented.

Perhaps another session will be needed.  We'll see. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A House Divided

Just had to laugh and cry at the same time when I logged onto the Drudge Report today.

Someone took out an ad showing an older map of the U.S.A.

The map rips apart, and a quotation moves to the foreground.  It reads:

A house divided cannot stand.

Attribution: Abraham Lincoln

Now, I like Honest Abe.  I really do.  He's a good guy in the history of our nation and a revered president, but, you know, we really need to give credit where credit is due.

And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  --Jesus (Mark 3:25)

Spoken roughly 1850 years BEFORE Abraham Lincoln and the source of Lincoln's quote.

So, is it an honest mistake by the advertiser or an effort to further remove Christianity from the public sphere?

I'm not thinking it's a mistake.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sunday's Sermon

At one point in my life, basketball was my favorite sport. This is attested to by the door to my room in my parents’ house. When I left home, I took all of my wall hangings and posters and such, but I left all the things hanging and stuck to my door. One of those things was a bumper sticker giving the definition of a "basketball-a-saurous: basically a person who ate, slept, and dreamt basketball. As I went through junior high and high school, I had dreams of playing in the NBA. At the time, I never thought about my limitations. I never thought about a lack of height or quickness or ability anything of the sort. I believed I could make it. And my beliefs had consequences.

Hour after hour, I would shoot hoops outside. After school and after homework, I’d head outside to my basketball goal. I’d shoot. I’d dribble around. I’d make lay up after lay up after lay up. I’d place myself in scenarios of having to make the final shot. We didn’t have a concrete pad underneath that goal for quite some time, and I wore out the lawn and dirt around it. You could tell exactly where I took most of my shots from. If it rained, there was a mud hole there for days afterward. And I didn’t care about the temperature outside. It could be 100 degrees out there, and I’d still play. It could be cold as all get out, and I’d still shoot hoops. I loved basketball. I believed I could do well in the sport, and my actions followed.

Beliefs have consequences.

Jesus highlights this in today’s gospel lesson. Now, if you were visiting most any other congregation today, you would probably hear as sermon on Jesus’ comment that He is the bread of life. You’d hear about how only He can satisfy the true hunger that is within each and every one of us. There’s nothing wrong with such sermons. I’ve preached quite a few of those in my career as a pastor. Those sermons are relatively easy to prepare and get one’s point across in, and I could have come up with another one very easily. However, this go round as I read this text, something else jumped out at me. Something the people asked, "What must we do to perform the works of God?"

Indeed, what must we do to perform the works of God. What actions must we take? What is the laundry list of items we must accomplish to say that we are performing what God asks of us?

As I contemplated that question, I realized something. These folks should have known what those lists of items are. I mean, all one need do is look through the Old Testament and read through the Jewish law to see what God requires. In the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, there are pages and pages and pages outlining the actions God requires of us. And even though books were scarce in Jesus’ day, those teachings were floating all over the place. Parents taught their children. Synagogues expounded on those teachings on a weekly basis. Pharisees and Sadducees and Rabbis went from village to village proclaiming those teachings. Unlike today when most folks have no clue what is actually in the Bible, in Jesus’ day, most folks actually did. And so I found it quite strange that Jesus is asked, "What must we do to perform the works of God?"

But even though I found it strange, perhaps Jesus did not. Perhaps He understood the root of that question. Because in Jesus’ day, much like today, many different interpretations of what it meant to follow that law were floating around. For instance, I mentioned the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed the most important section of the law was what is called the Purity Code. They believed that in order to do the works of God, one needed to focus on making sure one ate the foods God commanded in the law, wash one’s hands in the correct manner, follow the Sabbath and refuse to do any sort of work, associate with people who were considered clean and holy and avoid anyone who might be unclean or a sinner. The Pharisees believed that if they kept themselves pure enough, holy enough, God’s Kingdom would return. Their beliefs had consequences. As did the beliefs of the Sadducees, Zealots and others who were a part of the religious milieu of first century Judaism. Perhaps the folks who asked Jesus this question were trying to break through that confusion. Perhaps they were asking, "What is the truth? Who do we believe in all of this stuff? The Pharisees tell us one thing. The Sadducees tell us another. The Zealots tell us another. Clear up the confusion. What must we do to perform the works of God?"

Interestingly enough, Jesus at this point, does not give a laundry list. He doesn’t preach another Sermon on the Mount. He doesn’t give a step by step, law by law accounting of what a person must do. He simply says, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom He has sent."

Why would Jesus say this? Why would He say essentially, "If you want to do the work of God, believe in me?" Why didn’t He just give out a list?

Because beliefs have consequences. Beliefs affect your actions.

We essentially know this to be true. Most of the time we act out of our core belief system. We act based upon the principles we hold most dear. This is why I spent so many hours shooting baskets when I was younger. I believed I could be an NBA player, so I practiced and practiced and practiced. Yet, as I grew older and realized I didn’t quite have the talent, I changed my beliefs. I no longer believed there was a future in basketball, so I didn’t shoot baskets as much. My actions changed significantly because my beliefs did. And this happens to the vast majority of people. They act based upon their beliefs.

Beliefs have consequences, and Jesus understands this. Jesus knows how people work. So, He says, "Believe in me. Make me your core value and principle. Put me at the center of your life; in the center of your heart; at the core of your mind. With every decision you make; with every action you take, run it through me. Then, you will be doing the work of God."

Ah, now perhaps you can see why Jesus says what He says. Perhaps now you can see how this snippet puts everything into perspective. Because Jesus doesn’t want us just to do good things. Jesus doesn’t want us just to do things because God thinks those things are good. Jesus wants us to be good people. Jesus wants us to be godly people. Jesus wants us to embody God’s light and love and shine them into the darkness of this world.

And who was the pinnacle of this light? Who was the pinnacle of this love? Who showed us what it meant to live in God and through God and with God? None other than the God made flesh, Jesus Christ. Only through Him can we be good people. Only through Him can we shine God’s light and love. Only through Him can we do the work of God.

Beliefs have consequences. They lead to action, and if we are to be Christians and do the works of God, then we must first believe in Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Is Jesus a Republican or Democrat?

(Apologies to Tony Campolo for copying his book title.)

The question is really the wrong question to be asking for it carries a huge assumption.  It assumes Jesus would pick a political party and endorse it.  I find little evidence in the life of Jesus to suggest He would do such a thing.

As we look through the Gospels, we see the politics of Jesus emerge.  He was not interested in the status quo of the day.  He was not interested in endorsing any of the vying power structures governing first century Palestine.  He came to introduce a new player in the game: the Kingdom of God.

This Kingdom was unlike any kingdom that had gone before or was in place, and Jesus' teachings whetted our appetites for what that Kingdom would be like:

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ (Matthew 13:31-33)

44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous.  (Matthew 13:44-49)

I could list a whole lot more, but that would take too much time.  Books have been written on the subject, but suffice to say, Jesus painted pictures with enough detail to give us some ideas but with enough of a broad brush to leave quite a bit to the imagination.  He couldn't make it perfectly concrete because we're talking about God's rule.  It would mean conveying the perfect nature of God to humanity, and we are incapable of handling that sort of perfection.  We just can't grasp it.  All we can get are glimpses.  And Jesus gave us those glimpses. 

He also did so through His actions.  As we read the Gospels, we see who Jesus associated with:

He moved freely among the poor and sick.  He brought healing to those who were outcast and helped them reconnect with their communities.  He rubbed elbows with the rich and powerful (Zacchaeus, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus) .  He ate with tax collectors and Pharisees.  Jesus never limited God's Kingdom to one social strata.  He brought it into their midst, invited them to become a part of it, and allowed folks to choose whether or not they could or would.

As He picked His closest 12, Jesus chose from the various strata of Jewish society:

He picked common, everyday workers (the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John).
He picked one who cooperated with the Roman power structure to gain wealth and status (Matthew the tax collector).
He picked one who was in complete opposition to the powers that be and was using violence to overthrow them (Simon the Zealot).

Jesus invited people to abandon the social constructs of the day and their warped view of who was and wasn't acceptable, and He invited them to join a different reality where all would practice forgiveness (because they had been forgiven), where turning the other cheek replaced an eye for an eye, where the poor were provided for, where sins were judged but souls were not, where loving one's enemies was not only acceptable but expected, and where death was not feared.  Even this is far too small a summary.  The reality of the Kingdom of God goes much further and calls into question every structure of governance we have ever had on this planet.

It is with this background that we now turn to the original question: Is Jesus a Republican or Democrat?  Well, to answer one way or another would assume that either Republicans or Democrats have somehow encapsulated in their political platforms the totality of the Kingdom of God.  Can anyone honestly say that either party has done this or even come close? 

Do you think Jesus would cast His vote for political parties which spend millions upon millions of dollars to obtain power?  Do you think Jesus would cast His vote for political parties which demean and malign one another and cast blame at one another for the perceived ills of society?  Do you think Jesus would cast His vote for political parties who hold the U.S. Constitution in higher regard than God's Word?

Jesus has one political persuasion: The Kingdom of God.  That's the reality He worked for and introduced when He was on earth.  That's the reality He calls Christians to work toward today.  As far as I am concerned, He wouldn't align Himself with any political party, but He would say to those political parties--and to us as well, "Follow me."

And leaving our nets, our tax booths, our swords, our political affiliations, or what have you, I'd hope we'd do it.

Through Burnout and Back: It's Not About the Pie

Weird title, I know.  Let me explain.

As I have worked through the ordeal of burnout, I have made as one of my priorities reaching out to the unchurched, de-churched, and non-believers.  Even though being a pastor is certainly not about emotional gratification and self-satisfaction, I have found myself most satisfied and elated when engaging unchurched folks and helping to proclaim God's Word to them. 

Some of the highlights of my career thus far are seeing folks who left the church come back and become involved in the life of a congregation.  Other highlights include baptizing adults who make public professions of their faith later in life.  Knowing God has worked through you and with you to help another person come to faith is humbling and thrilling all at the same time.

For some reason, I have noticed this happening less the longer I have been in my current congregation.  I don't know why.  I'm sure there are several possibilities, but as I have looked back, I found a hunger to be engaging such folks that was not being satisfied. 

Therefore, I decided to change how I spent some of my work time.  I was heading out to engage.  Taking Bill Hybels as an example, I decided to spend time reading in a restaurant on a regular basis hoping to meet and visit with folks given the opportunity.

This isn't so easy in a small town like Cat Spring.  There's one major hang out where folks gather, but I know everyone down there.  I needed a different venue where I'd run into fewer people I knew and the possibilities of engaging complete strangers was a possibility.

I decided on Tony's Restaurant in Sealy.  It's a cafe about a quarter mile off of Interstate 10.  It's probably the busiest place in town as far as things are concerned.  There are people in and out of that place throughout the day.  There's plenty of seating so that I could stay for an extended period of time without costing a waitress too many tips.  It would work just fine.

The next step would be a little harder.  I'm not one who particularly enjoys wearing my clerical collar.  Too often, I've found it to be a boundary folks aren't willing to cross instead of an invitation to engagement.  Yet, I also knew if folks just saw a guy reading a book, they weren't going to pay much attention to such a thing.  Time to put on the collar.

My first foray into this experiment took place a couple of weeks ago.  I did get a few looks as I came into the restaurant.  I ordered a piece of pie.  I read.  I drank iced tea.  I spent a couple of hours, and the only folks I really had contact with were the waitresses.  Nothing earth shattering.  That's o.k.  I expect there will be days like that.

This afternoon will be another excursion.  I'll order another piece of pie.  I'll drink some iced tea.  Maybe I'll get a chance to visit with someone.  Maybe I won't.  Doesn't matter.  I'm beginning to make the effort.  In due time, I'm going to get a little message board to put on my table that says, "Interruptions Welcome."  Maybe that will help as well.

Obviously, sitting in the restaurant isn't about the pie.  It's about the opportunity.  It's about making myself available to a much wider "audience" than just my congregation.  It's about the possibility of engaging someone who needs prayer; someone who wants to ask difficult questions; or even someone who is openly hostile to the Christian faith.  It's about putting the Great Commission first and being outwardly focused.

Who knows what will come of it in the long term?  Maybe nothing.  Maybe something.  But at least the opportunity is there, and I'll get a chance to have some yummy pie.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Miracle of a Smile

The news from the MRI was devastating.  The brain had shrunk considerably showing little to no function.  According to the doctors, there was almost no hope for improvement.  The child was destined to be a non-responsive "vegetable" until the inevitable happened.  Hospice was called.

Months passed.  The child suffered ups and downs.  Surgeries were done to provide comfort.  Followed by infection and more surgeries.  Lengthy hospital stays ensued.  The child continued to show no response to anything other than pain.

After stabilizing, the little girl was finally taken home.  She was in her own bed in her own room.  Familiar surroundings improved the spirits of her family, and as a routine was established, things settled down.  The girl still did not respond to much, but a flicker here and there provided a few sparks of hope.

Weeks turned into months.  And then, the little girl laughed.  This caught the parents and siblings by surprise.  Laughter?  Sure enough.  They videoed the event to offer proof to the doctor on the next visit that this indeed was happening--you know kids, they never cooperate when visiting the doctor.

The father shared this information with the pastor one day.  The pastor replied, "You know, laughter is a higher brain function.  The brain stem doesn't control that kind of stuff."

"That's true," said dad.  Another sign of hope.

The doctor was impressed.  He put the girl on a medication to help her remain alert more during the day.  Small improvements continued.  The pastor came to visit one evening.

The pastor and dad went to the child's bedside.  "The Lion King" was playing on her television set.  Without much thought, the pastor had placed himself between the child and the television set as he came in to visit. 

"It's good to see you.  How are you doing?"

The child moved her head side to side.  She glimpsed up at the pastor with an unmistakable look.  SHE WANTED TO SEE THE TELEVISION!!! 

"I'm sorry," the pastor said.  "You want to watch your movie.  I'm moving.  (to dad)  That was obvious, wasn't it?"

Laughing, dad responded, "Yeah."

An evening full of conversation ensued including dad telling the pastor that the young girl often responded by smiling at her sister.

"Yeah, H. can actually make her smile almost on demand," dad said.

Later, as the pastor was about to leave, dad said, "H. go make your sister smile."

A few raspberries and nose tweaks later, the smile appeared.  The child responded.  Not a full recovery yet, but a miracle none-the-less.

And I got to see it!  Of course, on the way home, I was smiling.  It was contagious. 

The miracle of a smile.