I’m pretty sure this is bad soil.

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Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

How much of ministry is throwing seed onto bad soil? I know that sounds like a strange question. But it came to mind the other night after I spent some time with a couple I really hoped would listen, learn and get their lives together as we started premarital counseling. But I doubt this will happen. I have this sinking feeling that the seed isn’t going to grow.

OK, just bear with me. Keep your sermons to yourself. These are just my thoughts. I know nothing is impossible for God. I know all things are possible for God. I know that his word always accomplishes what he intends. I know we’ve all got issues. But I also know that three of the four soils in Jesus’ parable won’t yield a crop no matter how good the seed or the sower is.

You remember the story. A guy is planting seed. More like throwing it everywhere. Some seed falls on the path. Nothing grows. Birds eat the seed. Other seeds falls on rocky soil. No deep roots. Withers and dies in the heat. Still other seed falls among the weeds. Gets choked out by the faster growing weeds. Finally some falls on good soil and grows.

So does this mean that seventy-five percent of the time, preaching and teaching the word won’t yield much result? Does this mean that preaching and teaching only sinks in one out of every four people?

I’ve been reading a lot of Jeremiah lately. I’m glad I didn’t get that call. His call documents laid out the harsh reality that his congregation wouldn’t listen to him and would eventually die or go into exile. Nice. After some of his sermons they beat him up and put him into stocks.

OK, I don’t have it that bad, so stop complaining, right? Plus, what do I know about farming? That is, what makes me so sure I can size up a person and know they are a rocky road or a weed field?

Or — and I don’t like this possibility — maybe I’m doing this because I’m the one who needs to listen and learn from this. Maybe I need to step in a big pile to understand what some folks deal with every day. Perhaps I need to just chill, suck it up, and do my job.

OK, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Just be there.

IMG_3022It’s early. Really early. It’s dark. Really dark. It’s quiet. Really quiet.

It’s about 6:20 am on a Sunday morning as I pull into the church parking lot to open up, turn off the alarm, turn on a few lights, and get my head and heart into the worship that day. I hear the AC units kick on, and I am thankful they are working today. I unlock all the doors, thankful for all who will enter that day. I turn on all the lights, but quickly dim them all except for those in the chancel. And then in front of an empty room, I preach. I preach my sermon for the first time that day.

I’ve been working on the sermon all week. But it doesn’t come alive until I speak it aloud. My words echo through an empty sanctuary, but in my mind I see all of you who will soon be sitting in those pews. I know where you sit. I know where to look for you. And I am hoping that the word will touch you in the same way it has touched me in the past week.

It’s good to prepare. It’s good to practice. But it’s not really preaching until you are there. It’s so different when I see your face and watch your reaction. It’s not really a sermon until I see you struggle to hold back a tear. Or a giggle. Or look and me wondering, “How did you know?” Or glare at me thinking, “Oh yeah?” Or shake your head in disbelief: “I can’t believe you just said that!”

It’s a sermon when I can tell I’ve touched a nerve. Or pushed a button. Or put my foot in my mouth. Or given you something to hold on to when you thought you were going to fall. Or made you laugh and realize that you’ve been taking it all much too seriously.

I can prep, I can practice and I can preach. But it’s nothing unless you are there. That’s probably the best gift you could ever give your pastor. Just be there. React, respond, repent and rejoice with him (me) because God’s Word is just as amazing, powerful and life-changing as ever!

Five ways to stay close to God during a busy holiday season.

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Photo by Gareth Harper on Unsplash

It seems like a no-brainer. The holiday season, spanning Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas and New Years is rooted in Christian tradition, filled with special music and worship services, and fills our view with many Christian themes. The busyness of the season, whether it’s planning for guests, getting ready for travel, scheduling worship, buying and wrapping gifts or practicing for performances, we may discover that there isn’t a whole lot of room for Christ himself, a problem dating back to the birth of our Lord.

So, how do you stay close to God during this fun, amazing and busy time of the year?

Put him on the calendar. There’s worship at your church on Sunday mornings and maybe some midweek services during Lent. Ink them in and be there. Our Lord promises to join our worship gatherings of two, three or more, speaks to us as His Word is proclaimed, and brings His gifts of grace in the sacrament. These worship moments provide an anchor when you find yourself being pulled in many different directions.

Do a “plus one.” OK, you already have a morning quiet time or evening devotion. Grab a seasonal devotion and give him an extra five minutes. Our church gives them out. Many are available online. Here’s a great one from Lutheran Hour Ministries. Just like that first cup of coffee, jump start your day with His word rather than all the other things going on. It makes all the difference in the world. (Bonus points: get or make a little Advent wreath and burn the candles.)

Play a little sacred seasonal music. You can listen to non-stop Christian music every day beginning well before Thanksgiving. Much of it, however, will be secular rather than sacred. You can find it on Pandora, Spotify, YouTube and Amazon if you look. Most of your favorite artists have a Christmas album. I like “All I Want For Christmas is You” and “Sleigh Ride” as much as the next person, but you can do a whole lot better.

If you send Christmas cards, send one with a Christian message. You would not believe how many member of my church send me secular Christmas cards featuring cardinals, snowmen, and Santas! It’s usually around 50%! There are so many amazing and affordable cards that creatively capture the birth of Christ. Pick up a box of those to send out, for your sake and theirs.

Serve. Help out at church, help out a neighbor, help at a local ministry. Don’t just give something or send something. Be there. Jesus said, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Jesus came and spent time with those who seemed furthest away from the kingdom. That’s where you’ll still find him in this world.

If those don’t work for you, I’m OK with that. If gingerbread, Burl Ives, Kris Kringle, mistletoe and the Hallmark Channel do it for you, go for it. If not, why not try something different this year?

You might have all the answers, but you don’t hold the office.

talkingYesterday, I had the privilege of attending and speaking at an awards ceremony for a long time friend and member of the congregation. After the formal part of the ceremony, the other guests and I gathered for a meal. I had a chance to sit with the other guest speaker for the occasion, the mayor or our city. I looked forward to talking with her and hearing about her first year in office.

However the gentleman sitting to the other side of her hijacked the conversation. I listened carefully as he held forth on many of his own experiences and opinions on the future of our city. I was impressed with the mayor’s capacity to sit and patiently listen to his expertise in economics, civics, politics, and local government. As I sat there, I realized that her job and mine aren’t much different in that respect. We both attract volumes of advice from those who have all the answers, but don’t hold the office.

It is no different from fans who know exactly what the coach and quarterback should be doing, but aren’t on the field. Or those who have much to say about managers and pitchers, but they aren’t on the roster. Or for that matter, those who complain about their doctors and nurses, but have not studied and have never practiced medicine.

I am not immune to this nor am I above this. I need to be careful before I jump all over someone who works a physically demanding fifty to sixty hours a week and doesn’t make it to church. I need to remember the challenges of raising a bunch of kids, any one of whom may be sick on a given weekend. I don’t really now what it’s like to be a deputy walking up to knock on someone’s door, not knowing who or what is on the other side. And I certainly don’t know what it’s like to have the responsibility of governing a local community or in our nation’s capital.

Similarly, you may know exactly what the church (or the pastor) needs to do. And you may be one hundred percent correct. But keep in mind that you don’t hold the office. You’re not the one keeping watch over a flock. You’re not the one who knows too well the dark underside of those who seem just fine on a Sunday morning. You’re not the one they call when they’re hungry, dying or scared.

I am more than happy to listen to your suggestions and solutions. But they may not rise to the top of my to do list. They may not be feasible. They may not even be possible. Don’t take it personally. I’m just doing my best.

 

“Would you like to try some toilet paper?”

Toilet-Paper-2My previous memories of making snack mix brought to mind the first job I worked at the seminary with Sitko Field Services. Apparently, the population of Ft. Wayne, IN, represented a good cross section of America, so it was a hot spot for market research. Our job (Lisa worked there, too) involved phone and door-to-door surveys and product testing. Sue Sitko, the owner, brought big city marketing experience to the heartland, and helped us pay the bills as I studied to be a pastor.

The world was very different back then. In the office, I didn’t sit at a computer screen waiting for numbers to be automatically dialed for me. We sat in front of a phone with a page from the phone book and a stack of surveys, calling down the list to find someone who would answer some questions for us. More people than you would imagine were willing to talk to us about television shows, over the counter medications and restaurants. The only hard part was finding the right age group of people to talk to for a representative sample.

One weekend my job was to sit and width the NFL Pro Bowl and jot down every commercial. A boring game and a boring afternoon, but it was good money.

The really interesting part was the door-to-door work. Sometimes you walked around with a clipboard full of surveys, seeking a face-to-face conversation at someone’s home. Yes, this was a different time. But other times the goal was placing a product for them to try. I would go back a week later, get some reaction to the products, and leave a different batch for them to try. It was one thing to get people to test crackers, soda or dog food, but imagine some of the responses I got when I asked, “Would you like to test some toilet paper?” It was tougher but not impossible to find willing participants. Especially if they were one of those families who waited till they used the last sheet before going to store for more. When the survey was over, we got to take home some of the extra product, too.

I used to get survey phone calls, but haven’t for a while. When I did, I tried to answer the questions. I guess I still have a soft spot in my heart for those in search of market research interviews.

When you’re praying for me, say a little prayer of thanks for Sue Sitko, who was a part of preparing me for the pastoral ministry.

Snack mix

DSC_0108There is a lot I have forgotten from my years at the seminary, but one memory that continually resurfaces is one of the jobs I had to pay the bills my last year there: making snack mix. In the days before prepackaged Chex snack mix appeared on grocery store shelves, you had two choices. You could make it at home, which plenty of families did. Or, at least in northeast Indiana, you could but it bulk in a grocery story, who got it from a friend of mine who actually owned a little factory that made one product, snack mix.

It wasn’t especially hard work. If I remember correctly, one team opened case after case of boxes of Chex cereal and Cheerios, carefully slitting open the inner bag so it poured out just right. The second team mixed together a precise recipe of the cereal, pretzels, oil, lots of garlic, and a few peanuts in large bins. The next team would bake the mix in large aluminum trays. Some days you worked the final step, bagging up the cooled mix and boxing it up for shipment to several grocery chains.

It was a popular product. We made tons and tons of snack mix. I’m pretty sure my wife was making it right up to the day our first child was born. (I suppose that’s why it has always been one of his favorite snacks!) I think we got to bring some home to eat. But I know we always came home smelling like garlic. No threat from vampires in our home!

So when someone asks, “What do you have to do to become a pastor?” there are stories just like this, jobs of every shape and size that helped you get through seminary years that were lean in resources but rich in theology. I owe a lot to the guy who came up with the idea of making and selling “mix” so that we (and a few other seminarians) could earn a few bucks and serve the church.

Denied.

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Photo by Peter Miranda on Unsplash

I just started reading the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, and I think I had forgotten how harsh that prophetic message is. By the end of the second chapter God is basically saying, “Don’t come to me for help. Go to all those gods you’ve been worshiping” (Jeremiah 2:28).

So I began to wonder, at what point could I turn someone away who has been away from the church for a long, long time, but comes back for some a la carte spiritual food? Like someone who you haven’t heard from in about fifteen years who calls up one day and says, “Can I get my kids baptized this Sunday?” Or another who stops by the church now and again and sends an email asking me to do their wedding eighteen months from now. I denied both requests.

Of course I felt guilty. How could I not, seeing as how Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son being welcomed home? And there have been families who have been away for a while who have recently reconnected with the church. And I had no problem with them.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” I always thought Uncle Ben said that to Peter Parker (Spiderman). Actually, it is attributed to Voltaire. Anyway, it applies here. Jesus gives the church the authority to forgive or not, to loose or bind people in their sin.

But how do you know whether to apply mercy or accountability in a given situation? The catechism says you forgive the sins of the repentant. But how do you know if someone is repentant?

The bottom line is, you don’t. You can talk to someone and try to understand their story. You could look for the fruits of repentance. But in the end, you really don’t know. I tend to lean towards compassion, but in the two examples above, I just couldn’t do it.

Sometimes Jesus said, “I don’t condemn you.” Other times he said, “You’re already condemned” (John 3:18). Jesus didn’t like it when the Pharisees shut heaven’s door in people’s faces. Yet he also warned against giving pearls to the pigs.

But Jesus was better at sorting things out. He’s really good at reading hearts and minds.

And he’s great at keeping me on task. I’m not supposed to be a religious sub-contractor, providing various services. I’m just the messenger.

 

Maybe we need more discussions.

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Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

I knew it would be quiet. It usually is. Sixth commandment night at confirmation class: “You shall not commit adultery.”

The catechism’s explanation isn’t too risqué: “sexually pure and decent life in what you say and do” and “husband and wife love and honor each other.” But when you get down to the nitty-gritty, there’s plenty of giggles, shock and silence.

Where do we start? Right at the beginning. Male and female, be fruitful and multiply, hold fast, one flesh. God’s gift of sex is a good thing in the context of marriage.

However teacher and students live in a world where countless variations on that theme exist outside the marriage relationship. From pre-marital sex to same sex relationships to rape and incest, the discussion gets very real very quickly. As soon as we jumped in the deep end, one student remarked, “Pastor, you don’t have to talk this. My mom already tried. I told her we had teachers to explain it to us.”

I thought that was pretty interesting. From his point of view, this was a topic to be covered at school, not at home and certainly not at church! Though only a few wanted to admit it, I am sure they had all been exposed to the sexual variations I mentioned. Maybe more. They just didn’t want to talk about it.

Which is probably why we’ve got a lot of the problems we do. Teen pregnancies, chronic STDs, more charges of harassment every day. Maybe a few discussions with our middle schoolers can make a dent. Maybe a few discussions at home, too.

 

The nativity: it’s all ours.

screen-shot-2015-12-28-at-9-57-20-pm.pngAs I was tagging along with my wife, the day’s errands took us to Michael’s, a place filled with “arts and crafts, custom framing, home decor & seasonal products” and more than anything else: Christmas! Well over half the store was devoted to everything red, silver and gold on a green backdrop. According to the latest flyer, it’s all 50% off, too. You better get over there. And I mean now.

I started thinking about this thing called Christmas. This thing that has taken on a life of its own. This thing that now occupies two of the twelve months of the year. This thing that drives so much retail and online sales. This thing that we thought was a sacred holiday, but has long since been taken captive by our culture.

Church, I have sobering news for you. You are not going to get Christmas back. You’ve lost that battle. You’ve lost this culture war. There is nothing you can do to get Christ back in Christmas. It is now a fully secular event. You may participate in it, but it is not yours anymore.

But that’s OK. Really. Because we still have something. Something different. Something real. The nativity. That is still ours.

That’s the story. That’s the real story. And the world doesn’t want that. So it’s ours. It’s all ours.

So that’s what we’ll celebrate. That’s what we’ll proclaim. That’s the story we’ll tell. The nativity. That’s what you’ll hear me talk about. O, I like Christmas as much as the next guy. I’m in for trees, lights, songs, presents, cookies, snowmen, “Elf”, penguins, snow and fruitcake. But when it comes to church, we’re doing nativity. The festival of the nativity. The birth of the Savior, the King, the Christ.

That’s what you’ll be hearing me talk about. Not Christmas. Nativity.