Ten for ten

screen-shot-2017-10-17-at-5-06-39-pm.pngFor the first time this year, I had all ten of my confirmation class students together. Trust me, in a world where there is so much going on in the lives of our children and their families, this is nothing short of a miracle!

The students range in age from twelve to sixteen, from sixth grader to high school junior. They are all involved in other activities during the week, including but not limited to: band (three tubas and two clarinets), orchestra (violin), golf (at the state championship level; one young lady can drive 250 yds!), flag-football, boy scouts (one on the way to eagle), girl scouts, youth group, and future problem solving (with international competition experience). It’s a diverse group with interests that range from fried-chicken to robotics to “The Big Bang Theory” to their various pets.

It is such a dynamic time of life for them. Each is now just discovering their talents, passions and relationships as we learn how our Lord and faith affect every part of our lives. I’m fascinated. Our conversations take totally unexpected and bizarre directions every week. I was watching the video stream of last week’s class as we covered so many ideas about the third commandment and worship.

At one point, I told how some ancient civilizations made human sacrifices to appease their gods. That was their form of worship. One of the students shared that how they probably sacrificed the best looking people to please the gods, so it was better to be ugly and have ugly children. I said, “Imagine if that’s the way they did things in band?” After auditions, we’ll cut the best player from each section. By the end of the year, the band would sound horrible!

Some heard for the fist time that Jesus was Jewish. And that according to Old Testament law you weren’t allowed to eat shellfish. And how shellfish are bottom feeders, which is yukky. We discussed whether or not chickens have vocal chords (if not, how do they say, “bock?”) and whether or not it is OK to have a job that requires you to work seven days a week and words that my dog knows (bark, ruff and woof).

I’ve been teaching confirmation class for over thirty years, and it never gets old. Thank goodness for the catechism, laughter, and the joy of the Lord!

Advertisements

Can we be better speakers and listeners?

the-climate-reality-project-349094

Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

So I am sitting at a conference, watching the other attendees, fascinated at all the other activity going on. Yes, there are a few people sitting, listening and taking noted. But there are many more people who have come well-equipped to do other things. A few still bring books and newspapers, but many more do their reading on a phone, tablet or laptop. One person is preparing slides for a presentation. Another is catching up on email. Of course, some are scrolling through their Facebook newsfeed. Some have brought their breakfast with them. There is plenty of texting going on. Me? I admit, I was doodling on the back of the conference agenda as I listened.

It’s tough to listen. It’s tough to just it there and listen. It is hard, hard work. Which puzzles me a little. I have two ears that hear naturally, involuntarily receiving lots of sounds. But it is still hard to listen.

That got me thinking, when I was supposed to be listening, about those who listen to me preach each week. I can’t see everything everyone is doing, but I know there’s a lot going on. There are people on their phones, and I know they aren’t all using their Bible apps to follow along with the sermon text. I see a few of the weekly church newsletters in people’s hands — well, at least they will know about upcoming events. The congregation always includes a few note-takers, snackers, dozers, draw-ers, sneezers, whisperers, and nose-blowers. Some need to visit the bathroom, a few need a drink, a couple have to go back to the car to get their glasses, and who can help but watch the babies?

I know it’s different. I only have to keep their attention and they only have to keep their focus for fifteen to twenty minutes. But whether it’s a scheduled hour-long presentation or a blessedly-brief twelve minute homily, I believe there is a shared burden by both speaker and listener for effective communication.

For the speaker at the conference (or in church):

  • Do not read your powerpoint slides to me. I can read them myself, thank you very much.
  • Tell me stories, get me to laugh, paint some word pictures and engage my attention before you get to the weightier part of your presentation.
  • Make sure you haves a point. At some moment, give me something that will stick in my mind. It can be a phrase, a 140 character summary, a slogan, something to take with me.

For the listeners at a conference (or in church):

  • Don’t bring a diversion. Instead, come prepared to listen.
  • Take notes. Write down a few words, a phrase, a summary, something you can take with you.
  • Visit the facilities before the speaker begins.
  • Commit to giving the speaker some kind of useful feedback. By useful, I mean beyond the generic, “Thanks, I enjoyed that.”

I do not offer the above advice as an expert speaker or listener, just as someone who wants to learn to do both better.

 

 

How many guns do you need?

BondGuns2_zps203f209d

Not too long ago I was wondering, “Who has a gun?” Since then, one headline caught my attention: “Only 3% of Americans own half of the nations guns.”

On the morning of the recent Las Vegas mass shooting, I was on my way to a conference with two colleagues. As we glanced at the TV in a rest stop restaurant area, the reported number of fatalities and injuries continued to rise. Our conversation over lunch turned to guns.

One friend began talking about his concealed carry permit, and the gun he preferred when carrying. He went on to describe some of his handguns and rifles. Some had been customized. Some were special orders. Some had been hand-me-downs. Some were for hunting. Some were for self-protection.

Finally I asked, “How many guns do you have?” Looking up, he mentally counted through his own personal inventory. I don’t remember the exact number he mentioned, but it was more than ten.

Now I’m wondering, “Why does a person need so many guns?” I understand the need for different kinds of guns for different kinds of shooting or hunting. I’m sure there are new models and new technology, as well as old favorites and classic designs. It just never occurred to me that someone would have that many.

The subtitle to the previous headline read, “7.7 million Americans own between 8 and 140 firearms.” Apparently, “that many” isn’t that many when it come to guns. The Las Vegas shooter Steve Paddock owned 47 guns.

The guys I’ve gone out shooting with all own a variety of guns. Each time I’ve gone out, they’ve brought a selection for me to try. They’re always eager to demonstrate their collection. “Here, try this one.” “How did that one feel?” “You’ll like this one.” “This is what I carry.”

I still have a lot to learn about guns, ammunition and shooting. My dad had a couple of rifles. When he was growing up, you had have a gun and you had to know how to shoot. If you wanted to eat. He never taught me anything about them. He never took me hunting with the beagle. But I know he was pretty good. They always had food on the table.

7:22

img_7547.jpgA few months ago, I realized that almost everyday, I glance at a clock at exactly 7:22. Sometimes it’s am. Sometimes pm. It might be my watch, the clock in the car, the microwave in the kitchen, the cable box under the TV, to the lock screen on my phone. On a daily basis my eyes see the digits 7-2-2. By the way, that’s my birthday, July 22.

A coincidence? Maybe. A sign? I don’t know. Some inner prompting? Beats me. A little weird? Absolutely. A number to play? I haven’t tried.

At first it was, “Whoa.” Then, “Again?” Sometimes I wonder, “Does that happen to anyone else?” Mostly I just chuckle. Tonight, I’m trying to imagine some significance.

Maybe it will be a code I need someday to unlock a briefcase filled with cash.

Maybe it’s a message from the future, from another dimension, or from a parallel universe.

Maybe it’s a flight number. A locker number. A key number. A hotel room number. A parking space number. A cable channel. A radio frequency.

When I see it, I now consciously think, “Hey, I’m alive!” I never want to take that for granted. Life is too much of a miracle. Other times, I’ll just whisper a little “thank you.”

 

 

“I didn’t know that.”

At asuhyeon-choi-184102 recent regional pastor’s conference, the guest speaker, Mark Wood, made me aware of a segment of the population who identify as Christian, but know little if anything about the faith.

Mark shared a story of an airplane conversation with someone who identified as a Christian, but was surprised and even shocked by what Jesus had to say on a number of issues. Someone had witnessed to them, they said a prayer that asked Jesus to be their Savior, but that was it. They weren’t baptized, didn’t go to church, and were functionally biblically illiterate.

I’ll bet they aren’t alone. I’ll bet there are plenty of people attending church who know little of what God says in His Word. In fact, I’ll bet a good percentage of the church fits this profile.

I’m glad they’re saved. But there is so much more! Not only do we have something to look forward to in the next life, but we’ve been transformed to live new lives now. Lives of mercy, forgiveness, and truth.

Wouldn’t that be different than some of the usual suspicion, fear and lies that fill our news and conversation?

How’s your biblical literacy? More importantly, what are you going to do about it?

“I’m sorry; I have to go.”

Meeting_Pet_PeevesWhen my office administrator reminded me of an appointment the other day, she added, “We need to arrange an interruption. The last time they were here visiting for ninety minutes!” And so we did.

I’m sure I’m not the first to pre-arrange a meeting ending strategy, but it’s a more recent tool I’ve used to gracefully bring to an end open-ended visits. Early on, I didn’t use this, because I wanted to be available, compassionate, caring and pastoral. With practice, I learned to be all those things, but I also learned that I had my limits.

Some who seek time with me, however, apparently have all the time in the world. A few are lonely and crave human conversation. Others weave a tangled web of woes that seamlessly connect leaving me with no opportunity to interject a thought or conclude the meeting. It reminds me of the stories I have heard from doctors and nurse practitioners of those patients who come in with not one, not five, but dozens of ailments they would like addressed, as if there was no one else in the world, much less crowding the waiting room.

Bottom line: I don’t always have time for that. Solution: schedule an interruption. Before the appointment, I tell my assistant to interrupt me with a legitimate and pressing concern at a particular time. When they do, I have a polite way to bring the time to a close and see my guest on their way. Most recently, I set an alarm on my phone in my pocket. It vibrated at a certain time, signaling to me that it was time to excuse myself to attend to another ministry I had arranged. Worked like a charm.

Here’s the fun part. Now that you the reader know that I do this, you will always be wondering if I have an interruption arranged whenever you stop by to talk to me. Because I’m not telling.

Solus Christus: Christ alone

Transcription of Sunday, October 8, 2017 sermon. 
Oct 8 cover pic

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Those words are as controversial now as they were when were first spoken. But when were those words first spoken?

Let’s go back and look at the whole story that begins in Acts 3 when Peter and John are going up to the temple at the hour of prayer. They come across a man who can’t walk. He’s got something wrong with his legs since his birth. He’s sitting there at the gates of the temple begging. Every day his friends bring him to the temple and they sit him there so he can beg for money. Peter and John approach the temple and see the man. He sees them. They know exactly what he wants. Peter says, “We don’t have any money, but we will give you what we have. I tell you in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” He grabs him by the hand and immediately the man’s legs and ankles are strengthened, he’s up on his feet for the first time in his life. He walks into the temple praising God and worshiping him.

Everybody sees this man walking and they know him because he’s always been sitting outside the temple. A crowd gathers. They are just amazed. Peter stands up and says to them, “Don’t be amazed. Remember that Jesus you denied and asked to be killed? God brought him back to life. He is alive. He is active among us. That is why this man is walking.” Everyone is astounded at their message.

Everybody except the religious leaders. The religious leaders are annoyed at what they have to say. They are going around telling everybody that they killed Jesus, and now Jesus is alive again. They bring the apostles in and ask, “So how did you do this?”

Peter says, “We didn’t do anything. Remember that Jesus that you killed? God brought him back to life. He’s alive and active and among us. That’s why this happened here today. Nobody else could do this. There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Nobody else can step into this world and do these things except our Lord alone.

What are the religious leaders going to do? They can’t deny that something happened. The healed guy is standing right there. They tell the disciples, “Alright, just keep this to yourselves. Don’t go walking around telling everybody what we did or that Jesus is alive.”

Of course, they didn’t. It just emboldens them to do even more.

We live in a world where many would like us to keep that message to ourselves as well. That whole idea of solus Christus or Christ alone doesn’t resonate very well in this world. Even in our country, we live in a nation where there is religious freedom, which demands tolerance of different religious thought and defends individual beliefs. The prevailing thought is, “You can do whatever you want, you can say whatever you want, you can believe whatever you want, just keep it within the walls of your church.” Don’t bring it out onto the streets.

The problem with that is that message of Christ alone doesn’t resonate well inside the church either. As soon as we say that, that we are saved through faith in Christ alone, we exclude people we know. It excludes people in our families who don’t believe. It excludes friends or people we work with who have other ways of believing or believe in different gods or have different systems of faith. It leaves out people who may never have heard of Jesus. What you’ll find is that inside the church when we talk about Christ alone we use our “inside” voices.

This is hard to do because throughout the pages of scripture the theme of Christ alone echoes from cover to cover.

The Lord says, “Besides me there is no other god, a righteous God and a Savior.  There is none beside me” (Isaiah 45:21).

“For God alone my soul waits in silence, from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation” (Psalm 62:2).

“There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:9).

When Jesus has just lost a number in his congregation because his teachings are too hard to swallow, he turns to his disciples and says, “Are you going to leave too?” Peter says, “Where else would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6).

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Even though there is a negative side to that, when the Bible speaks of Christ alone, it is a positive message. It is a message that is good news for God’s people. There is somebody who can give life. There is somebody who is a ransom. There is somebody who has come to rescue us. The negative is not the main part of the message. The main part is that there is one who loves you and cares for you and is your Savior.

Let’s look at how Jesus alone, how Christ alone is a positive message. First of all, Christ alone is our ransom. Paul talked about that when writing to Timothy. After he says, “There is one mediator between God and men the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”

You know what a ransom is. A ransom is what you pay to a kidnapper to make them release the person they have taken prisoner. A ransom is what you pay because a virus locked up the data on your computer and you need to get that data back. Jesus is the ransom that pays for our freedom.

Freedom from what? I would contend that we are held captive by any number of things. For instance, fear. We are held captive by so many fears. We are afraid of where the next shootings will be. We are afraid of where the next disaster will hit. We are afraid of the possibility of war. We are afraid of where the next cancer will be. Or when the next heart attack will be. Or will the next death will occur. There are so many things we’re afraid of that it limits us and we don’t want to do things and we just want to stay in our homes and be safe with our families.

We are held captive by deep mistrust of so many. We don’t trust the government. We don’t trust the police. We don’t trust pastors. We don’t trust our neighbors. We don’t trust the teachers in our schools or the coaches of our athletic teams. We don’t trust anybody. So we keep to ourselves and we don’t believe what they say and that keeps us shut up in a small place.

We are held captive, we’ve been kidnapped by despair in our lives. There’s nothing we can do to fix things. Things are not going to get better. We aren’t in control. We don’t know what to do. So we turn off the TV and close the books and we try to pretend its not there.

But there is somebody whose perfect love casts our our fear. Jesus, who’s perfect love is seen on the cross. That’s what love is, that he would give his life for us.

There is somebody you can trust. Jesus is the faithful one. When he says, “I am going to die and come back to life again,” he does it. He keeps his word. He is somebody we can trust.

Jesus doesn’t let us sit there in despair. He gives us hope. There is a resurrection. There is much more to this life than what we see going on around us. God has so much more in store for you. Despair gives way to hope because of that one, Jesus Christ, who ransoms us with his own life to buy us that freedom to live and have hope and to trust and to enjoy the blessings God has given us.

Number two, Jesus has words of life. Sometimes he’s the only one who speaks of life. All we seem to hear about is death. All we see on the news is the latest shooting, or the latest explosion, or the latest disaster that has taken countless lives. Sometimes all we can think about is those who have died and left us behind. Sometimes we get to the point where we’re thinking about our own lives and what that is going to be like.

But Jesus is the one who doesn’t come to us to speak about death but life. He says, “There is somebody in this world who want to kill, steal, and destroy you. But I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. If you believe in me you’re going to live even if you die and if you live and believe in me, it’s as if you’re never going to die at all.” Jesus comes with words of life from the one who can give life to the dead. He comes back to life after his awful death on the cross to show us that his words are words of life.

Jesus is the one who comes to rescue us. Nobody else comes to rescue us. People teach us the way to find enlightenment. Or the way to see things in a positive way. People come and give us tasks to complete so that our lives will be happier or we will be more successful. People come and they remind us that it’s up to us to make the right choices and do the right things. There’s only one who steps into this world, to get a hold of our lives and says, “Let’s get you out of here. Stick with me and you’ll discover what this life is really all about.” Jesus is the only one who does that, who steps in and take us by the hand and brings us back to life.

Jesus is the only one. And that’s what solus Christus, Christ alone, is all about.

That message of Christ alone is the good news. Yes, there is a negative connotation to that. Whoever does not believe in him is condemned. But that’s not the main message. The main message is that we have a Savior and his name is Jesus. He has died for us and he is alive and active in this world.

The whole idea of Christ alone reminds the church that when we go out into the world, that’s what we bring: Christ alone. We don’t just food for people who are hungry. We don’t just bring clothes for people who need something to wear. We don’t just bring justice for those oppressed or find a place to live for those who have no homes. We bring Christ. We bring Jesus. As his hands and feet and voices we are the body of Christ and that’s what we bring.

That’s all we can bring. We don’t have the power, we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the knowhow, but we have Christ. We bring him in a very real way with our words and testimony, with our mercy and love, with our presence and our support.

There’s the real power of Christ alone.

Thanks, angel.

emergency_vehicleI headed out the door to make a few hospital visits the other day. As I was just about to merge on the interstate to head south, I saw a fleet of fire engines, ambulances and sheriff’s cars along the side of the road. Traffic was moving, just very slowly. As I passed I saw a car on its side in the woods and people being carried out on stretchers. They must have rolled a number of times to get that far back. It looked bad. Couldn’t have happened more than a few minutes ago. Dodged that bullet!

When I was getting off the interstate, I slowed down for a similar scene. Lots of rescue vehicles plus three smashed up cars. It didn’t look like anyone was seriously hurt. Missed that one by just a few minutes, too.

After my visits, I passed yet another crash in the middle lane of the interstate overpass. Bumpers, glass and fenders littered from at least three cars littered the road. Wreckers were starting to pull what was left away. Another close call.

One more stop to make. Publix. I always park pretty far away from the front door. Too many lazies and crazies up there. Too lazy to walk from a parking spot. Crazy enough to run you over. Sure enough, someone pulls around and just misses me. Thanks, buddy.

My guardian angel did a good job that day. Got a little overtime, too. Will our driverless cars be able to do as good of a job someday? I hope so.

“We won’t be needing you after all.”

Why did I say, “Yes?” I suppose I was in a benevolent mood when a local funeral director called and asked if I could do a funeral service at their place on Wednesday morning. I like to serve the community in this way from time to time, so I agreed and waited to hear more details.

Details followed later in the afternoon, contact information for the family of the deceased. I called and set up an appointment to come to their home Tuesday afternoon, so I could prepare for the service.

5e02fe5e64709598de32c69ded19e375--brick-pavers-brick-driveways

No this is not the house, but isn’t that a nice driveway?

When I got to the entrance gate, the guard had my name and pass ready and I drove through the exclusive neighborhood in our area. My GPS successfully guided me to a vast, beautiful home on the water on a quiet and upscale cup-de-sac. As I pulled into the brick-paved circular driveway, the blinds were closed tightly to the afternoon sun. I walked up and rang the doorbell.

After a few breaths, I rang the doorbell again. I listened for sounds of activity within. Silence. The lawn guy’s mower across the street was the only sound I heard. I glanced at my watch. I was about five minutes early. No problem. I’ll wait a few minutes. I am sure they are on their way.

A few minutes after the hour, I walked back to the front door and rang the bell a third time. While waiting, I dialed the number the funeral director had emailed to me. A voice answered and I told them I was at the front door, but no one seemed to be there. After a short awkward silence, an accented voice called a name, and another person came to the phone.

“Oh, my brother is going to do the service. The funeral home said they would call you.”

“OK, thank you. I’ll keep you and your family in my prayers.”

As I drove away, I glanced at my recent calls and voice messages. Nothing from the funeral home. I texted my office assistant to see if anyone had called. Not when she was there. I check the church’s voice mail. Nada.

So I called the funeral home and the director answered. “I just wanted to confirm that someone else is doing the service tomorrow.”

The director responded, “I’m not sure what you mean. We are still planning on you being here.” I explained my experience and conversation, and he assured me he would check things out. A few minutes later he called me back. “Yes, the family made other arrangements, but didn’t inform us. Thank you for letting us know.”

After all of that, I have to admit I’m glad they have to deal with the family. Clearly they are dealing with a lot right now, and need our prayers. I texted my assistant, “I think God knew I was already too busy this week.”