Sounds good to me.

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Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash

I read a lot of articles on Medium, another publishing site, as well as blogs on WordPress and Blogger. A lot of pieces have titles that begin

“The ultimate guide to…”
“Simple tips to…”
“What it takes to succeed at…”
“How to become…”
“Strategies that really work…”

I know these titles are meant to get readers, reposts and ratings. And they work, because they get your attention and you think for a second, “This is just what I need.”

Maybe it is. But what do you know about the author? What’s his or her experience and expertise? What are their credentials? How do you know they know what they’re talking about? I’ll bet you don’t. Chances are you don’t check. Most of the time, you accept their words as authoritative. You read their advice, tips or strategies and think, “This is just what I need…”

That’s scary. Without knowing anything about the source, you are just taking someone’s word for it and implement their suggestions! Why is that? Why do we so easily give credibility to the massive amounts of information we take in each day via blogs, social media, and digital newsletters? On top of that, our friends and family are very quick to share, “So-and-so says we should try this…or go here…or eat this…” No wonder fake news works so well. Or bot-generated comments.

There must be some science to this. I’ll have to do a little research. What makes an anonymously generated idea so believable? Can we learn to be more discerning?

I’ll let you know what I find out. And I’ll bet you’ll believe me, too.

 

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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. 

 

When traditions begin to vanish

I went to the viewing of a friend’s father last night at a local funeral home. When I arrived, the staff showed me into the room for the visitation, a room that was virtually empty. Just a son and a granddaughter. I wasn’t early. In fact, I deliberately came a little bit later.

jerk 2As I sat and visited with them, a few others arrived and I suddenly found myself immersed in Jamaican culture. The conversation was filled with references to jerk seasoning, where to get the best jerk seasoning, plantains, rum, reggae music, Rasta, and cities and towns in Jamaica. As I listened and learned, it seemed like there was a running competition among them about who was still the most “Jamaican” among those who had lived in New York and now in Palm Coast for twenty or thirty years or more. Continue reading

Sola gratia: Grace alone

Transcription of Sunday, October 1, 2017 sermon. 

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About a year and a half ago I took an evangelism class. Every once in a while I’ll take a class like that to learn a little bit more about having conversations with people and finding opportunities to talk about faith. In these classes they teach you a lot about listening to other people to find out what they believe, where they got their beliefs from, what their spiritual background is. Since a lot of people you’re talking with may not have a lot of church background – they may have no Christian background at all — it’s good to have some illustrations to help them understand what Jesus and salvation are all about.

One of the stories they offered went something like this. You’re like a person who’s out in the middle of the ocean who’s floundering, drowning and going down for the third time. We would certainly perish unless someone comes along and throws us a life preserver. All we have to do is grab on to it and we’ll be saved.

The analogy is pretty clear for us who are Christian and have church background. We are floundering in sin and we’re going to perish, but Jesus come and all we have to do is hang on to him and we’ll be saved. It’s a pretty good analogy and illustration to use. I offered to the class that I liked to talk about that in a slightly different way. Since the bible says that we’re dead in our sin and transgression, it’s more like I’m lying on the bottom of the pool. I’m gone. I don’t need a life preserver. I need a lifeguard. I need somebody who’s going to dive in the pool, swim down to the bottom, get a hold of me, get me out of the water onto the side of the pool, start doing compressions and breathe some life into me. Otherwise I’m gone. we can see that analogy, too. Dead in our sin and transgression, we can’t reach out to hold on to anything of God. We need somebody like Jesus who dives into this world, into this mess that sin has made and we have made of this world, and comes to seek and save those who are lost. He comes to seek and save us who are lost.

The message we proclaim is all that Christ has done for us. We proclaim the grace of God, a tremendous gift. The apostle Paul writes, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

Everything  about us being saved is what Christ has done for us. We add nothing to that. You do bring something to the table. You have a part in it. You bring sin. That’s what you bring. You bring the thoughts that aren’t nice. You bring the words that cut people deeply. You bring the actions, the disobedience, the failures. That’s what we bring. Everything else about salvation Christ brings. Sola gratia. Grace alone.

If you really want to offend people. I’m not saying you like to offend people, but I know you. I know you like to stir the pot a little bit. I know you like to see if you can get a reaction from people. If you really want to see the hair go up on the back of someone’s neck, just start talking about grace alone. You don’t have to take a knee to get people going. Just start talking about God’s grace love saving us. You will get a reaction from people.

it won’t be agreement. It won’t be a positive reaction. If you’re talking to some who have been a part of the church, they’ll get all over you if you start getting all Lutheran with them. They’ve got their stories about how they got saved and how they asked Jesus into their lives. The whole notion of grace alone just doesn’t add up.

It is true that “to all who would receive him, who believed in his name, our Lord gave the right to become children of God” *(John 1:12). But it is also true that you cannot reach for, you cannot take hold of, you cannot grasp anything God has for you unless he has first taken a hold of you.

It is also very true that we have some issues. We’ve got some big problems to deal with. “The heart — your heart and my heart — is deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). Our hearts do not have the desire for good things, for God at all. Paul says that our hearts are hostile to God.

You know the words from Romans 3:11, “No one understands, no one seeks God.” We don’t go out looking for him. No one goes out looking for him. That’s what sin has done to us. It’s got us going in the opposite direction. We’re want things for ourselves. We don’t want the things of God.

In John chapter 8 Jesus said, “Anyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” If you are a slave, you’re stuck. you may not like your job as a slave, but you can’t retire, you can’t quite, you can’t transfer to a different job. You’re a slave. You have no say. That’s where you are. If you’re a slave to sin, you can’t walk away from that. There’s no way.

When Martin Luther was helping parents and adults teach children the truths of the faith, he gave a good explanation to the third article. You know the third article of the creed. It’s the part about the Holy Spirit. “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

What does this mean? “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” I can’t do it. There is nothing I can do.

But, “the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me by his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” That is the message we proclaim, teach and embrace. It is God’s Holy Spirit, working through his word, that gets a hold of us. Now we can respond. Now we can love Now we can hold onto him. Now we can believe. His grace must initiate it.

“The gospel is the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). That’s what he uses to save us. That is our Lord coming into our lives to lift us up from our hopeless condition to give us life. The message we proclaim is so simple, that gospel is filled with power, it’s something that any of us can remember. It’s simply that Jesus died for us on the cross, was buried, and was raised on the third day. That message alone is the power to get a hold of you and give you life again. In our baptism we are united with the death of Christ and also with his resurrection. In a very real way he takes us right from the bottom of the font where we are dead in our sin and transgression and gives us new life with Christ.

One of the pictures in the bible that helps us understand this is from the Old Testament, from the prophet Ezekiel chapter 37. God takes the prophet Ezekiel to a valley in the middle of nowhere. Everywhere he looks he sees bones. Human bones. Skeletons, dead for a long time. The flesh has long been eaten off them. Everything’s decomposed. There is nothing but a valley littered with human bones.

God says to Ezekiel, “Speak to the bones.” “Speak my word to them.” He does, and the Spirit of God fills those bones and they come back to life. He speaks to them and they are covered with muscles and skin and suddenly God’s people are alive again. They were dead and had turned away from God and given up the life he gave them. But he didn’t give up on them. He came to seek and save them and give them life.

That’s what God does for us. He keeps telling us over and over again, “I’ve given you my Son to save you.” That’s what takes hold of your heart. That’s where you get that gift of faith. It is God’s grace alone that rescues us from something we couldn’t get out of ourselves.

Without the truth of grace alone, it’s all on you. You have to make the right decisions. You have to have faith. You have to hold on. If it’s all on you, it’s going to be too much for you. You’re going to feel like Peter. When he was with the disciples in a boat on the sea of Galilee. The wind is blowing and the rain is falling and the waves are crashing and they are bailing and they are rowing and they are trying to get to the other side. And here comes Jesus, walking across the water. Storms don’t bother him. But it can’t be Jesus. He can’t walk on water. It’s got to be a ghost. Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. It’s me.” Peter says, “If it’s you, I want to walk on the water, too.” Jesus says, “Come on in, the water’s great.” Peter takes a couple steps out of the boat. So far so good. He sees the wind, he sees the waves, and he sinks. It’s Jesus who grabs him and saves his life.

It’s Jesus who saves us. He reaches out with his word to get a hold of our hearts, minds and souls, and helps us see we don’t have to do this ourselves. Christ has already done all of this for us.

We can’t handle it. But he can. Jesus has already shown that he can handle sin. He came into this world to live a perfectly obedient life, like us in every way but never sinned. He did everything God wanted him to do. So that when he suffered and died on the cross, he was punished for you and me. You don’t have to carry your guilt any more. it’s gone. No shame. No sin.

Jesus can also handle death. He came back from the dead. The grave couldn’t hold him. The bible says he first one of many who will come back from the dead. The grave cannot hold God’s people any more. He has a handle on life and death.

Jesus can handle Satan. Satan is the one who keeps lying to you, telling you that you have to do it and you’re not doing a good enough job. Jesus counters all that with the truth. The truth that he’s the way and the truth and the life, and that we are saved by grace through faith. And this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God. Sola gratia. Grace alone.

I think I know someone who could do that.

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Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Thinking about guns, people who have guns, and people who use guns, I started thinking the other day. I wondered if anyone in my circle of acquaintances, friends and parishioners fit the profile of a mass shooter. Do I know anyone who could snap and start to take lives?

I did a little bit of non-scientific online research. Multiple sources report that 13% of Americans over the age of twelve are taking antidepressants. Three percent of the population is bipolar. In my county, there are between eight and twelve arrests for domestic violence every week. Over fifty percent of adults who have some kind of mental illness are not being treated for it.

I believe there is a good chance that I know someone capable of being the next shooter of innocent people in a crowd somewhere. No, I don’t have anyone particular in mind. But I do know some really angry people. I know a few who are really bitter about the hand life has dealt them. I know others with really short fuses.

I also know that each of us is capable of any number of atrocities against humanity — or as we pastors like to call it, sin. The first sin mentioned in the bible outside of the Garden of Eden was murder. Cain killed his brother Abel, in a dispute over worship styles (Genesis 4). Obviously it didn’t take much to flip his switch. King David arranges for Uriah to be conveniently killed in battle, so he can have his wife, who he has already slept with and impregnated (2 Samuel 11). When a Samaritan village didn’t receive Jesus, disciples James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven to eliminate the entire population, an ancient version of a drone strike on an enemy village (Luke 9:51-55). And by the way, these weren’t tax collectors or sinners or atheists or devil-worshipers. These were believers. They were God’s people. Yikes.

Whether it is a senseless mass shooting on a college campus or a movie theater or a concert venue, it’s a reminder of the evil in this world and the evil in me. I like to think that I am a cut above those who would abuse children, strike their spouse, or steal offerings from a church. But I’m not. And you know that’s true, because pastors have done all those things. And more.

Every headline about violence reveals the dark, disgusting underbelly of our world, our nation, our community, and people just like you and me. This is a nasty place, and we are nasty people. And Jesus became one of us, like us in every way, experiencing anger, despair, pain and death. When the Bible says that he who knew no sin became sin for us, it means that he became that dark, nasty, disgusting underbelly. He became the mass killer, the suicide bomber, the violent father, and the abusive spouse. He became us, so that we could be something different. So we could be like him.

Maybe some laws will change because of what happened in Las Vegas. Maybe not. Maybe people will turn to God for help and for hope. Maybe not. Probably not. In the book of Revelation, no matter what disaster is poured out on the earth, people still refuse to turn back to God.

But in the midst of all this, who’s on the throne (in control)? Who got hit and killed in the violence of this world? And who says, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled?” Jesus.

I not only know someone capable of doing horrible things. I also know someone who brings light to the darkness.

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.

Who’s got a gun?

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Photo by Sofia Sforza on Unsplash

Eight, nine, maybe ten years ago, I was talking with a few of our ushers at the rear of the church, probably about 10 minutes before the beginning of a worship service. I’m not sure why, but the discussion was about handguns. Maybe they had been to the shooting range, or they were planning an outing. When one mentioned a specific gun, Floyd pulled up his pant leg and revealed that exact model in an ankle holster. He said, “You mean, like this one?” At that moment, I realized that on any given Sunday morning, at least one of my worshipers was packing.

Since then, I know that many members have purchased guns and gotten concealed carry permits. How many have that gun on them or in a handbag on a Sunday morning? I have no idea. When we last worshiped in Haiti, I noticed that many of the ushers had a sidearm under their suit coat. Usually a 9mm. Continue reading

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.