Ashes to go

24hy432Early this morning I took Ash Wednesday on the road. Two things prompted me to do this. One was this article. The other happened last year after our noon service. I joined one of our small groups for lunch, and the cashier at the restaurant saw me in my collar with ashes on my forehead and asked, “Do you have any more ashes?” Because of her job, she didn’t get to go to her church and get ashes. It made me wonder who else was like her?

So this year I got myself and my ashes together and I went to a Starbucks near us about 6 am. I had told the congregation I would be there, and it put it out on social media, too. I got myself a grande dark, found a nice corner and sat down to work and wait for the next two hours.

As I worked on sermons and devotions, a few church members wandered in to see me. Some on their way to work, some up before their caregiver duties began, one on the way to Mahjong, a few others on the way to school. All would not be able to attend worship today, so all appreciated the chance to talk for a moment, remembering with ashes both out mortality and the eternal life we have in Christ. Several hung out for a little, asking about me and how I was doing. Eight folks in all this time around.

The coffeeshop wasn’t as busy as I expected. About half of those who came in had placed online orders, grabbed their cup and were quickly out the door. A couple of folks who were there when I arrived were still there working on their computers when I left at 8 am.

I enjoyed the coffee and the conversation. I may try it again next year. Perhaps I’ll make a little sign (though it was pretty obvious what I was doing.) Or go a little bit later in the morning. It takes a few cycles for people to get used to something new. I like Starbucks better, but maybe I’ll give Dunkin Donuts a try.

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Feliz anniversario Vida de Fe

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Pastor Juan Boneta from Palm Coast (left) and his son Pastor Moises Boneta from Vineland, NJ

Tonight, I had the privilege of going to a fifth anniversary worship service of Vida de Fe, the Hispanic congregation that has used our chapel on Sunday afternoons for the past four-and-a-half years. Pastor Juan Boneta and I have been good friends that whole time, so it was an honor to be there for their celebration.

It was cross-cultural experience for me. First, the service was sung and spoken in Spanish. Pastor Juan and his son Moises, who preached, did provide some English translation, mostly for me. other than that, I only had Jesus, Senor, Dios, Cinco años, casa, and hallelujah to work with. It was kind of a Pentecost moment, where many heard the message in their own language.

The service lasted about three hours, longer than I, definitely an American worshiper, was used to. The sermon didn’t begin until the two-hour fifteen-minute mark. It was preceded by music, prayers, special presentations and guests who brought greetings.

I was warmly welcomed by all and got a certificate of thanks. In my comments, I shared how one of our members insisted that we build a chapel as part of our new sanctuary building thirteen years ago. It was designed and served well for smaller gatherings. When we built it, we had no idea that this mission would be using the space. But God did, and both churches were blessed in the process.

I’m glad I got to attend, and I am glad I got home for the second half of the Super Bowl, too. A pretty good Sunday.

 

 

 

“Will you bless this for me?”

examiner-size-cross-in-handWhen I was getting ready to perform a wedding at a non-church venue in St Augustine last fall, the bride’s aunt took a cross pendant next door to the Basilica to have it blessed before giving it to her niece. Someone looked toward me and asked, “Why didn’t you just have him do it?” She just shrugged. 

A week or two later, someone took me aside before worship and showed me a new cross necklace they had just received and asked me to bless it. I was caught off guard, since I wasn’t in the habit of blessing things. But I said a prayer with that individual, asking God to let that cross be a powerful reminder of everything that Jesus had done for them.

Every month the prayer shawl ministry of our church puts on display all the shawls that have been crocheted over the past month so that we can pray for those who will receive one. Of course we don’t know ahead of time who will receive them, but God does, so we commend them to his care. We keep a supply, and members of the church will request them and take them to people who are sick or have something else going on.

Sometimes, a shawl will be finished and given to someone in-between those monthly displays. Well-meaning members will bring the shawl by for me to bless. Rather than blessing the shawl per se, I pray for the healing, comfort, and safety of the recipient.

After doing this a couple of times I began to wonder, “What’s the big deal about blessing something?” Where did this idea come from? Should I be better at doing this? It is true that in the agenda (a reference volume of special ceremonies) there are rites to bless things like organs, church bells, paraments, buildings, furnishings and homes. These rites, however, are a way of reminding us that we are setting these things aside for special use in ministry. However, when people have an object blessed, I fear they may believe this object will now guarantee good fortune, as if it were now a good luck charm. In other words, if an object in their possession has been blessed, they will receive blessing from it. Superstitious at best, this borders on idolatry in my book. 

I can guarantee that an object is just the same after I pray over it as it was before. I am not able to make a cross or a bible or a crocheted prayer shawl any more effective in protecting, healing or blessing anyone. I have no problem praying for somebody who will wear or use or hold one of those things. But give an object special powers? That’s way above my pay grade!

Will your pastor be human in the future?

lionel preacherbotAfter I read “Your Future Doctor May Not be Human. This Is the Rise of AI in Medicine”  by Abby Norman on Futurism.com, a strange thought entered my mind: your future pastor may not be human,  either.

The article describes AI that can identify blood infections with amazing accuracy. While a radiologist will do better at making cancer diagnoses when they have adequate time to review cases, AI did better when time was short.

AI can detect mental health concerns by monitoring your phone. If you haven’t left the house for several days, or haven’t called or texted anyone for a week, you may need some help. AI can also pick up certain speech patterns that indicate stress or even depression.

And of course, robotic surgery is already here.

So at what point will AI begin to replace the clergy, or at least parts of my job?

I’ve got an archive of thirty years of sermons. With that kind of data, AI should be able to emulate my style of writing, cross reference bibles and commentaries, and produce a sermon that sounds like I wrote it. Bots already write poetry and reports that a majority of readers attribute to human writers. How far off is the day when I simply type in a text or a topic, and my computer produces a 2,000-word sermon for the coming Sunday?

A chatbot therapist like Woebot on Facebook Messenger is currently available to provide counseling and help you work through some of your issues. There, I just freed up some time on my calendar. I might even use it myself to decompress after dealing with some ministry challenges.

I suppose some bots might even pose as actual members of the church. What if that member who you call and talk to, who sometimes contributes, but never attends church isn’t a real person after all?

A driverless car will take me to the hospital, a nursing home, and your home for a visit. I won’t get lost and can use the travel time to read or nap or snack.

AI will analyze data about the businesses, people and issues in the community to shape the goals and long-range planning of a congregation. Demographic studies already provide some of this.

AI already aids my study with bible software, corrects my grammar and spelling, and searches for relevant current events to illustrate my sermons. Apps that can translate your conversation on the fly has opened doors for cross-cultural ministry. Online classes have changed the face of continuing education.

The church won’t be exempt from AI. It will happen more quickly than we think and in ways we can’t even imagine!

 

 

 

 

Shotgun!

alejandro-salinas-189861A few years ago I wrote this in one of my journals, a prayer prompt of sorts: “So, where are we going today, Jesus?”

I had been musing about following Jesus as his disciples did. Following meant you would go where he went, see what he saw, get yours hands dirty in the reality of life, and be blown away by what he could do.

In a way, it’s like shadowing Jesus on your first day as a waiter. He’s the waiter, the one who serves, so you tag along and learn what the job entails. You quickly learn that some people are very nice, while others are just nasty. Some are very demanding and hard to please. A few will leave little or no tips. Others will care and be very generous. But no matter what, you do your best to serve, to listen, to smile, and to forgive. You encounter the very best and the very worst of the people in this world.

Or it’s like riding shotgun with Jesus. But not only will you get to watch and listen, but you’ll get your hands dirty, bloody and scarred, You’ll experience first hand just how creation had fallen and how far God goes to redeem it. You’ll be delighted when you find faith and dismayed when you don’t. It might take you by surprise, but for the Messiah, it’s just another day at the office.

If you want to see Jesus at his best, you need to be where the world is at its worst. You need to tag along or ride shotgun into those places where grace is needed and grace is often found. Want to pray a powerful prayer? Just begin by asking, “So, where are we going today, Jesus?”

Just listen.

listenMy friend J. stopped by the other day to cancel a lunch appointment later in the week. He had to go out of town, so we’d get together some time in the future. He could have called, but he was out and around, so he came to the church to talk to me. And he did, for about fifteen minutes, about all kinds of things. Standing in the hallway, I just listened and nodded as he wandered seamlessly from topic to topic.

The last time I went to visit S., he was in a pretty good mood and shared with me his plan to regain enough strength and balance in his legs to leave the nursing home and move back home. After my initial greeting, I didn’t have to say much. He had mastered the art of speaking without periods. Every sentenced ended with a comma-like pause, and segued into the next thought, story, complaint or reflection. Sitting there, I just listened and nodded for about thirty minutes.

My visit to K. found her in good spirits even though she would not be going home. Case workers were searching for a suitable assisted living situation for her. She too had much to say about her family, friends, and possible future. Thirty minutes into the visit, I had only spoken two sentences as she chatted about everything and everyone.

S. topped by the church office with a question, which led to additional questions, apologies for having so much to say, and lengthy stories which never quite reached a conclusion. Twenty-five minutes of listening and nodding.

I believe these and many others are simply starved for someone to talk to. They are either alone most of the time or just don’t have anything left to say to those they live with and are famished for conversation. So I listen. And I tell myself over and over in my mind, “They need to talk. Just listen.”

With more and more ways to communicate, we actually talk to fewer and fewer people. Instead of calling to order a pizza, I use an app. I exercise with virtual people on DVDs. I reserve boarding dates for my dog via a popup chat box. I don’t know if there is a real person on the other end or not. I’ve gotten a rental car at a kiosk with a screen and a talking head, rather than from a person on the other side of a desk. I get texts instead of phone calls. A machine at the grocery store tells me what my blood pressure is.

I’m comfortable with all the technology and use it all the time. But my day is also peppered with phone and in-person conversations with people that I know well as well as those I’ve just met. But one day, if I don’t (or can’t) go out much, and have outlived some of the people I used to talk to, I’ll bet I’ll crave someone, anyone, to talk to, too.

So I’m paying it forward now. Go ahead and talk. I promise to listen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bless your nurse.

angry-patientWhen I went to visit M. in the hospital yesterday, her nurse was in the room, finishing up some charting and her sister sat nearby. As I walked into the room, M. said, “Hi, pastor.” The nurse immediately looked at her and said, “Now don’t you start cursing at him!”

I said, “She’s usually on her best behavior when I’m here.”

The nurse replied, “Then you’re not leaving!” Uh-oh. I can only imagine what that means. It must have been an interesting stay in the hospital for the patient, nurses and probably everyone else who’s stepped into the room!

It seems to me that the one person you want to be nice to is your nurse. The doctor might stop in for a moment, housekeeping might be in for a few minutes each day, and you can be sure someone come by in the middle of the night to draw blood. But the nurse is taking care of you for a whole shift, is the one you call when you need something, and advocates for you with the doctors.

I know how hard it is to be in the hospital. So does your nurse. Which is why you want to bless not curse your nurse!

Quiet, empty hallways

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Photo by Manuel Polo on Unsplash

What a difference the weekend makes! I had to go up to Jacksonville, FL today to visit a couple of people at Baptist Medical Center. I’d been downtown before, so I knew how daunting the traffic and parking could be.

But not on a Saturday afternoon. Continue reading

One last visit

Sunset_2007-1Today would probably be my last visit. The last time I saw J. he didn’t look too bad. He had lost some weight, had lost some strength and had to use a walker. The cancer was there, but he didn’t purse treatment. He’d had ninety-one good years, fifty-five of them with an amazing wife. A life well-lived.

Today when I went to visit, I didn’t know what to expect. When I got to the door, his wife said, “He won’t know you’re here.” But when I got to his bed, he looked at me and whispered, “Hello, pastor.” A couple of weeks into hospice care, he had stopped eating and drinking, and slept most of the time. Death crept closer with each moment. But he was home, in his own bed, without pain and with his wife, continuing to live a good life.

Our conversation was brief as I prepared the sacrament, a foretaste of the feast to come. A little bread dipped in wine would be his portion. His wife would receive the rest as she sat on the other side of the bed. I silently thanked God for this moment, probably the last, to give him communion. To give them communion together. I’m no expert, but I knew he didn’t have many more conversations left in him. I knew this would be his last meal on this side of the heavenly banquet.

This family is one of the few who have been at our church longer than me. They joined about a year before I arrived, so I have known them for a long time. I thanked him for his faithfulness, and reminded him, as I had for the last twenty-one years, of God’s faithfulness. I reminded him of Jesus’ sacrifice, God’s forgiveness, and that place prepared for him by his Savior. After a prayer and the Lord’s prayer, I made the sign of the cross on his head as I spoke the benediction. A reminder of the sign of the cross made on his head and heart at his baptism ninety-one years before, in anticipation of this very moment.

I don’t quickly forget these moments. As a pastor, I get to be a part of many families’ final moments with loved ones. I get to be there in those moments when the temporal and the eternal touch, when heaven meets earth, and when loved ones leave this life for the next. I could tell that God had blessed this family with love, acceptance, hope, and strength. Rather than falling apart as death drew near, they fell into the arms of their Savior a familiar place they had been many times before,

Before I left, I saw and talked with D., his wife. I made sure she was getting the help she needed, got her to promise she would call when anything happened, and talked about J.’s memorial service. For someone as frail as she was, she had strength and composure that I can only attribute to the Holy Spirit. I guess that’s why He’s known as the Comforter and the Helper!