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!

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“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.

“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.

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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.”

I went to a funeral.

shutterstock_722607682I went to a funeral yesterday. As I sat there before the service began, I realized that I’ve been to very few funerals that I haven’t conducted. The person who had died was the father of a member. I had met him a few times, but didn’t know him very well. I was there mostly to support the family.

The service was held in an Episcopal church. I don’t think I’ve ever been in an Episcopal church before, either. As expected much of the liturgy was familiar and reverent, the ministers did a good job, the family participated in a meaningful way.

But when it was all over, I thought to myself, “I wish it were Easter.” Why? Because if it were Easter, I would have heard an account of Jesus’ resurrection! The homily did contain a passing reference to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but nothing more. The well-intended meditation focused on the ever-present love of God even in the face of death, but lacked the impact of the resurrection. Yes, the deceased will live on in our memories and in the presence of God, but no reference to that last day when Christ will come, the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised.

Though I wasn’t exactly grieving, I know that this was a tough day for the family. I don’t believe most of them had yet experienced the loss of someone that close to them, who was such an integral part of their lives.

I made up my mind right there and then that I would either read or include in any funeral or memorial sermon the account of Jesus’ resurrection from one of the gospels. If I’m doing your service, your friends and family are going to hear about the rolled away stone, an empty tomb, and angels telling you, “He’s not here, he is risen!” I cannot type, read or speak those words without feeling rush of emotion. A casket or an urn or even just a picture of the deceased may be on display before the altar. Death may have come quickly or over a long period of time. You may have had a chance to say good-bye. Or not. But you can be 100% sure that you will hear me say that the urn, coffin, vault, or grave can only hold your loved one for so long. When Jesus comes, the best trumpet I’ve ever heard (and I listen to a lot of trumpet players!) will be followed by the sounds and sights of urns, coffins, vaults and graves surrendering their dead as “the resurrection of the body” becomes a reality.

I am doing a memorial service next Saturday for a long-time member of our church. I am so looking forward to this. They are letting me pick the songs and readings. We’re going to send our friend and brother off with joy, hope and expectation!

Spoiler alert: at my funeral, you’re going to hear a Gospel Easter account (you pick one), Psalm 16, and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Hymns: My Hope is Built on Nothing Less, Crown Him with Many Crowns, In Thee is Gladness, and For All the Saints. Hire a trumpet player. There you go.  Funeral planning done. I suggest you do the same. 

 

Doing less, doing more.

Businessman multitaskingIt’s counter-intuitive. At least it is for me. When I see a great opportunity, or when there is a need or when I just have the next great idea, my heart and soul tell me to get to work. When I am not getting the results I want, the logical response is to put more time and energy into that effort. Or when something needs to be done and I’ll be around it’s just too easy to say, “I’ll take care of it.”

More and more I realize that’s not the right response. It turns out that stepping in to do what needs to be done has some unpleasant side-effects. Doing more enables others to do less. Doing more allows me less time to focus on some of my primary tasks. Doing more doesn’t necessarily mean that I will get more done, either.

Want a couple of examples? I’ll try to limit it to a couple.

Our church choir needs men. Badly. Health, travel, and age have taken a toll on both tenors and basses. Last year, I thought, “I can sing. I can shore up the tenors until the next choir draft or we can call up some promising voices from the minors.” So I did. But without as much need for low voices, the recruiting process was put on the back burner. The distraction of having to be ready and in place for an anthem robbed me of some of the focus I needed for liturgy and preaching. By doing more, I enabled others to do less and cheated other worshipers out of some of what Jesus called “the one thing necessary.”

When we were in-between office managers, I filled in. With a volunteer to do answer the phone and duplicate materials, I could put together each week’s worship resources. It wasn’t until I hired a new talented office manager that I realized how much time I had been losing each week by doing dozens of little tasks. Within days, I had time to meet with people, visit and make phone calls. I was able to resume shepherding. By doing more, I was able to do less. I was cheating the congregation out of the care they needed. The return on investment of a good office manager has far exceeded expectations.

Some of my elders have recently stepped up to help me keep track of our church’s families, both with phone calls and visits. I’ve never had this much help before. By not trying to keep track of 200+ families alone, I can be more on top of what is going on with more of them. . When I tried to do more, I actually got less done.

Sometimes others don’t step up to meet a need until they see or experience that need. If I step in to the gap, the need goes away and so does their opportunity. But if I keep my nose out of it, someone takes it on and actually does a better job than me. And that helps me be a better me, too.

Ocean City conference

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View from the deck of the Port-O-Call Hotel

My travel day to the district’s regional pastor’s conference in Ocean City, NJ began early. Really early. Since I had to fly out of Orlando this time, I was on the road by 3:30 am. Pretty easy drive, breezed through security with TSA pre-check, and had time for some people watching. A few things that caught my eye:

  • They still use dot matrix printers at the gate when printing out the passenger list. The zzztt-zzzttt-zztttt is a strange sound when you are used to laser printers. The continuous feed paper is a strange sight, too. Bonus points if you know the other place they still use these printers. That’s right — at the car dealership, as they print out your financing forms.
  • Chinese food must be popular for breakfast at the airport. The line at the Manchu Wok was longer than any other restaurant. I passed on the lo mein and opted for Cuban coffee and a muffin instead.
  • Classical music is still the go to background music at the airport. Hundreds of years later, Mozart and Handel fill the air at the busy gates. Is there anything else that can match the shelf-life of good classical music? 
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  • This guy carried two basketballs onto the plane. They didn’t seem out of the ordinary. They weren’t autographed. He and a friend practice their dribbling at the gate before boarding.

There was no line at the rental car desk. They asked me, “Will you take a free upgrade to an SUV?” Absolutely. A few colleagues met me there and we had a nice drive to the Jersey shore.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

kathy-hillacre-8240 (1)I’m often asked, “How do you preach without using a manuscript?” The answer is the same you’d give to the question, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice. Practice. Practice.”

My Sunday sermon is usually done sometime on Thursday. I run through it a few times, then set it aside till Saturday. On Saturday, I will practice it a few more times. Sometimes I practice at church, in front of an empty sanctuary. Other times I practice at home, in front of the dog. I might practice it while out for a walk. Or in front of a mirror. I practice one more time early Sunday morning, before anyone else arrives at church.

So by the time I preach for a worship service, I’ve already heard the sermon five or six times. Sometimes more. On the one hand, this is a good thing. Good speakers practice their talks. They practice their pace, silences, movement and gestures. On the other hand, I’ve already heard this sermon five or six times. It’s starting to get old. And sometimes I’m beginning to wish I didn’t have to preach it at all.

That’s when I need to remind myself that my audience hasn’t heard it yet. They haven’t thought about the text, the context, or the application. For them, it will be new. It will be something they will respond to. Maybe with a smile. Or a question. Or an argument. Perhaps with a prayer. Or with praise.

Over the past twenty years, some in the congregation have heard me preach over 1,000 times. And they keep coming. They keep listening. They keep learning. They keep growing.

Every Sunday morning, as I drive the three miles to church, I warm up my voice, I thank God for my voice, I thank him for the power of His word, and I thank Him for everyone who comes to hear. After all, you can’t be a preacher without a congregation.

Life after death

chu-tai-121706Several months ago I wrote about our preschool’s last graduation as we closed the door on that part of our church’s ministry. Since then, closing that door has been followed by a flood of new opportunities. As soon as we laid that program to rest, new ministries immediately sprouted and began to grow.

A team of members, both new and old spent weeks cleaning out many years of preschool furniture, toys, craft supplies and teaching materials. A new wall, buffed floors and a fresh coat of paint spawned new ministry ideas.

One area was set aside for youth ministry. Soon after, two young adults took a step of faith and offered to lead our youth ministry, which had lay dormant for a couple of years. They now have more than a dozen meeting each week, not just in our facility, but out serving in the community.

Another area was set aside for our Operation Barnabas chapter, ministering to veterans and families of military in our area. The harvest field of retired vets is plentiful in our area. A place to connect with other vets will also provide a way to connect with the local church and other services that they need.

Yet another area was set aside for our preschool Sunday School class, which is suddenly being populated with little people as the birth rate rises in our congregation and community. Two first-time teachers stepped up to lead this ministry.

Both the girl scout and boy scouts have asked to use our space, another connection with our community, and more importantly, the homes immediately around us.

The space we now have available can be used for disaster relief. We now have space usable as a secondary shelter when the primary shelters close down.

We recently got involved with helping out homeless students at our high schools. We now have some space available to expand our ministry to those families.

Over the past few years, we did everything we could to keep our school open. In hindsight, we were simply providing hospice care for that part of our ministry. From scripture, we should have known that unless a seed is planted in the ground, it remains just that. But when it is buried, it grows into something new and much more than it was before. We should have known that death leads to resurrection, not just on Easter morning, but in the life of the church and her saints.

Our most recent experience in church revitalization happened when we laid an old ministry to rest and watched as God breathed new life into that void.