“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!

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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?”

Kids

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Photo by Christiana Rivers on Unsplash

I never, ever get tired of reading or hearing the story of when people wanted to bring their kids to Jesus and the disciples tried to stop them (Mark 10:13-16). I can just hear the disciples saying, “Get those kids out of here.” And then Jesus says, “Don’t you dare send those kids away. Let them come to me. That’s what this is all about!”

This account resonates on a number of levels. First of all, I think that deep down, we just all want to be kids. We want to be free of all the responsibilities of being adults, to just play and imagine and color. And that’s OK. You get a much better handle on Jesus when you are a kid. You’re not trying to prove yourself or justify yourself. You just look at him with wonder and know that he’s not like any grown up you’ve ever met before. He wants you to hang around, not just go off and play (and be quiet).

I also believe we want to feel his embrace. After Jesus rebuked his disciples and told them to let the children come to him, he took them in his arms and blessed them. With all the uncertainty, violence, politics, prejudice, hatred, jealousy and evil in our world, we just want someone to hold us. We long for someone who can make us feel safe. Who better than Jesus, who loves without boundaries, who provides a refuge from everything that threatens, whose arms can reach and embrace anyone, no matter the distance?

Don’t ever grow up so much that you no longer yearn for the feel of his arms around you. Always embrace your inner child, for that is one of the places where you will best get to know your Savior!

 

 

Look at me!

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Photo by Carlos Martinez on Unsplash

My little friend C. stopped by to see me the other day. With a whopping five-and-a-half months of life under her belt, she has developed quite the personality. When I said, “Hi!” and our eyes met, she flashed a huge smile, kicked her legs and excitedly waved her arms.

But when I looked away for a second to talk to her handler (aka Grandma), I saw out of the corner of my eye that she stopped. When I turned back to her and made eye contact, she smiled and squirmed again. This is my kind of game. I looked away and looked at her over and over again, with the exact same result. She was delighted when I looked but was dismayed when I didn’t.

Reflecting on that brief visit, I thought, “Wait a minute, I’ve played that game before.” We all have. There are times in life when it seems like God has turned away from us, and we’re dismayed. But when it seems like he’s paying attention to us, we’re all giggly and happy. Bad stuff happens and we’re like, “Hey, God, I’m over here.” Good stuff happens and we’re all, “God is good, all the time! All the time, God is good!”

King Saul once felt that way. He said, “God has turned away from me and answers me no more” (1 Samuel 28:15). But Saul had turned away from God a long time before that. In fact, when Saul said that, he had employed a medium to conjure up the spirit of Samuel!

Does God turn away from us? Just the opposite. God comes looking for us. Like he looked for Adam and Even in the garden when they were hiding in the bushes. Or like a shepherd who goes in search of a lost sheep. Or Jesus, who shows up in this world to seek and save the lost.

The best reminder of God’s gaze on us comes in the words of the benediction, “The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you” (Numbers 6:25). I hope you’ll never hear those words the same way again, a reminder of God’s persistent gaze upon our lives, so that we can respond with excitement, joy and yes, a giggle!

Note: the picture is not C. She is much cuter!

 

 

 

The rhythm of the eternal

vladislav-muslakov-261627In the Old Testament, people’s lives moved with the rhythm of the eternal.

For example, there was a Sabbath, one rest day a week. There were festivals to be observed (Passover, Pentecost, and Sukkoth). Every seven years, debts were forgiven and even the fields got to rest. The pace of life was governed by your relationship with God, the Creator, the Lord.

The pace of my life? Rather than cycles of effort and rest, I push myself until I drop. I work until I’m exhausted. I keep going until I get sick, or burn out.

In the Old Testament, there were daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal sacrifices, feasts and festivals. So much of life revolved around appreciation, reconciliation and atonement. A renewed relationship with God led to restored relationships with family and friends. Regular patterns of worship led gave birth to healthy patterns of life.

In contrast, I feel guilty for taking time off. Time off is interrupted by emails, phone calls, and texts about things I could be doing if I weren’t taking time off. I pay more attention to those who insist I ought to be doing more and working longer hours than the one who says, “Be still and know that I am God.”

Rhythm. The steady rhythm of my heartbeat. The daily rhythm of sunrise and sunset, bedtime and time to wake up, of the music I’m listening to, of listening to God’s Word and speaking my prayers. So much of life consists of rhythm.

I’ll bet there’s a good reason for that. We were created with rhythm in mind. Day and night. A pulse. Respirations. Awake and asleep. Joy and sorrow. Alone and in a crowd. Together with loved ones. Life and death. Listening and speaking.

I want to my life to reflect the rhythm of the eternal. To live at Gods’ pace, God’s urgency, God’s patience, God’s priorities, God’s cycles.

Lord, help me to live by the rhythm of the eternal!

“Jhalda, West Bengal, India”

BengalTigerRight, like I am going to answer that phone call.

The caller ID on my phone shows “Jhalda, West Bengal, India.”

Really? Like that is a legitimate call I am going to answer? I probably ignore 80% of the domestic phone calls I get every day. From every state in the union, from a variety of places in Florida, and more than a few from my area code and first three numbers of my phone number.

Oh, I was tempted. So tempted. I am so curious. I’ll bet they weren’t the IRS, telling me I was about to be arrested. Those calls usually come from Florida numbers. I’ll bet they weren’t selling me health care insurance. Those calls are from more local numbers. I’ll bet they weren’t offering me a social security death benefit. Those folks usually call from New York or Washington, DC.

But India? I’m intrigued. But I’m not naïve enough to call back. International rates and all that.

So I wonder – how many people simply let my calls, from the church or my cell, go to voice mail? Because they really don’t want to hear me ask, “So how come you haven’t been in church lately?” (Which, by the way, I never ask.) Or, “You seem to be a bit behind on your tithe.” (Which I never say.) Or, “So, are you still alive?” (No, I never lead with that, either.)

I usually ask, “So how are you?” When I call, it’s just to see how you are doing. If I don’t call – hey, call me, I’d love to talk to you. Especially if you’re from India. And you’ve got Bengal tigers in your neighborhood. I’ve only seen them in zoos. I figure they’re like alligators in FL. You just get used to them.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working concessions in Phila.

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My view for each game for most of the games I worked at the Vet.

It wasn’t my first job. (My first job was church janitor.) It wasn’t my best job. (I kind of like preaching.) But it was a cool job: concessions at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.

One of the perks of being a Douthwaite in South Phila? My uncle Jack Nilon had the concessions at Veteran’s Stadium, home of the Phillies and Eagles in the early 1970’s when I was in high school and college. My Aunt Catharine, whom we called “Aunt Smim,” pretty much ran the place and made sure I had a job there every summer through late high school and college. She also made sure I got to work one of the best concessions stands, right behind home plate on a level where I could watch most of the games. If we were busy, I could at least see the scoreboards and know what was going on. Those were good years for the Phils, who hosted the All Star game in 1976 and won the World Series in 1980. (Names from that year: Mike Schimdt, Steve Carlson, Tug McGraw, Bob Boone, Greg Luzinski, Gary Maddox, Pete Rose, Larry Bowa.)

I worked as a cashier, standing at a register just outside the booth where a host of other workers boiled and “bunned” the hot dogs, wrapped up hamburgers, and poured drinks. These were the days before some of the upscale food you pay big bucks for at professional sports complexes. Some games were really busy; others I spent most of my time watching the game.

Even though more than forty years have passed, I still have vivid memories of these days:

  • A gentleman carrying a cardboard tray with six beers ($6 each back then) set them down on a fold out table to pay. The table collapsed, dowsing his pants with all that beer! It was impossible for us not to laugh, so we (we always had two cashiers outside each stand) got in big trouble because we did.
  • Before the stand opened each night, I would help wrap hot dogs to stay ahead of the initial lines when the gates opened. Yes, we would deliberately wrap up empty buns, just to see the reaction when people went to put mustard or ketchup on their hot dog. At least it was funny back then.
  • We got to eat whatever we wanted. The problem was, once you had a hot dog, some chips and a soda, you didn’t want all that much. Hey, keep in mind, this was the 70’s. They didn’t wear gloves to handle food. I couldn’t tell you how often new water was put in the hot dog boilers. Bones in a hamburger? Hey, I’m just the cashier.
  • It was cool to be there for the All Star game as the nation celebrated the bicentennial in 1976. It as really cool to go to one of the World Series games in 1980. (I think I went to game 2.) I didn’t work any of the games, but I used my ID to get in and watch one of the games against the Kansas City Royals.
  • I got to work a few other events during that time. I worked a few Eagles games when I was home from college. I also got to work a few Army-Navy games when they played at JFK Stadium. Boy that was an old dump of a stadium. You got into some of the concession stands by crawling through a hole in the wall to unlock the door from the inside. In the late 70’s, I think I worked a few Peter Frampton concerts there, too. One occasion, I was summoned from the concession and taken to an office because there was some kind of threat against my uncle. I don’t remember how that all turned out, but obviously, everything turned out OK.
  • My Uncle Jack always had a bottle of Mylanta on his desk. Apparently, it was a stressful business. He took frequent sips from it. Yuk.
  • Some of my friends also got jobs working concessions. On one occasion, as my Uncle Jack commented on his sizable schnoz to one of my friends, he said, “How’d you like to have this nose full of nickels?”
  • I got in big trouble one summer. The Phils didn’t win the World Series every year, so some years, attendance was low and business was slow. One game, my cashier partner and I were taking turns bouncing a rubber ball against a wall and catching it. One of us missed a catch and it bounced past a customer who complained to someone. We got called onto the carpet, were chewed out, and then had to work a concession stand out in centerfield for a few weeks. Lesson learned. We didn’t do that anymore.

When I applied for a job at Subway in Ft. Wayne, during my seminary days, I think I put my concession – “food service” – experience on my application. I got the job. And it got me through seminary. Thanks, Uncle Jack.!