Thinking about the tomb that first Easter morning

empty-tombIn a cold, dark, dead tomb a corpse is wrapped in a shroud. No motion, no life.

Then, there’s a small motion as cells in the body begin returning to life. Tissue begins to regenerate and suddenly the body moves as the dead man takes a deep breath.

He stirs and finding himself bound by the shroud casts it off. He sits up and then removes that which was wrapped around his head and lays it off to the side.

There’s nothing frightening about all this. In an unexplainable way it all feels “right” – the way it should be.

In a flash of brilliant white light an angel appears in the tomb. The angel immediately falls to the ground, bowing, “My Lord and my God” he says.

At that moment the stone sealing the entrance to the tomb is rolled away. A second angel bows low, “My King,” he says.

The Resurrected One smiles and cheerfully replies, “Good morning! I think I’ll go for a walk in the Garden.”

Thinking about Good Friday

old-rugged-cross1I fear that too many people think the primary focus of Good Friday is supposed to be about how much Jesus suffered on the cross – and, we certainly do need to remember that. But really, the primary focus should be this: Jesus loved me that much. It’s that realization that should stun us, humble us, and cause us to bow in complete surrender to him.

On the subject of forgiveness

My son, Scott, talking about forgiveness…

How old is your computer mouse?

Last year my computer mouse died.  I decided to get get a cheap one to replace it.  If the replacement didn’t work out I would get more serious about finding another one later on.  The cheapo worked and in time I got used to it.  The other day, though, it began to show signs of wearing out.  I decided I was ready for another one – in fact, I would get a Bluetooth mouse to free up a needed USB port.  A quick trip to the store and I had my new model.  It cost more that the cheapo but it’s still nothing close to a high end product.  The difference though, is surprising.  I didn’t realize just how worn out the old mouse was until I started using the new one.  It has a more solid feel and is more responsive.  Sometimes a piece of equipment is wearing out but since we use it all the time we adjust to the poorer performance without realizing it.  Remember, you don’t have to spend a lot of cash to upgrade this heavily used piece of computer gear.  

Contemporary Worship: things that bug me

No, I’m not going to complain about the style of music or being asked to stand through the song -er- worship service. Here are three contemporary worship services practices that I am seeing that bug me.

  1. Volume of instruments in the praise band. This may surprise you, but I’m not talking about the music being too loud. We seldom come away from a service in a church of our flavor (Church of the Nazarene) thinking the music is too loud. What I do hear fairly often, though, is unbalanced volume from the various instruments in the band. Often, even when the stage has several instruments, the only two I can hear clearly are the strumming of the worship leader on the guitar and the drummer. If you closed your eyes you would think that was all there was: no keyboard, no bass, no second guitar. Of course there are variations to that. Sometimes the music guy plays keyboard and it’s the keyboard you hear. Really, if you are going to recruit instrumentalists to your praise band and have them come to rehearsal it’s reasonable that your music and sound people work together to balance the sound. Obviously, there are exemptions – maybe you have a not-so-talented musician that you want to encourage by having them sit in. Aside from that, though, an effort needs to be made to equalize the sound.
  2. Self-serve communion. It is becoming more common to put the communion elements out and announce to the congregation that during the next song they can come and receive communion if they want. I can’t tell you what poor symbolism I think this is. Communion isn’t a self-serve event. It isn’t an “if you want it” kind of ordinance. Just continuing with the music portion of the service as though communion is just a side line misses the mark. I love communion and I think it has enough spiritual “weight” to hold it’s own in a service. I don’t mind the ritual being updated in some reasonable ways, but I want the pastor to lend his/her authority to the serving of the sacrament.  It bugs me to hear the pastor taking time to do announcements as though that is really important stuff but leaving the serving of the Lord’s Supper on automatic as though it’s just an optional part of that Sunday’s worship service.
  3. Preaching from floor level rather than the platform. I understand the desire of pastors to be informal and approachable during the sermon. I understand that in a contemporary worship service the speaker doesn’t want to appear preachy. Apparently, a lot of pastors have decided that, not only do they not want a pulpit, but they want to be down front rather than on the stage looking down on people. But let me tell you what happens out in the seats: some of us spend the whole sermon trying to look around the people in front of us. After awhile I gain a whole new appreciation for Zacchaeus of New Testament fame who climbed a tree so he could get a glimpse of Jesus. If the speaker would just stand on the platform we could all see him or her. Some pastors think they are enhancing their communication effort by staying off the platform, but I think they are shooting themselves in the foot by creating an absolutely unnecessary distraction.

Any time I see young adults in the church who are really into worship it blesses my heart and I’m happily convinced that a lot of contemporary churches are doing a lot of things right.  Still, I have to confess that these things bug me.

How about you?

Reflections on the 1st Anniversary of my Retirement

Time flies. It was one year ago this Sunday that I preached my final sermon as a pastor and said farewell to our wonderful congregation. We turned the page to a new chapter in our lives.

While I doubt that I will ever quit being a pastor at heart, I’ve begun to learn to go to church and sit in a pew. I’ve been learning what it means to go to church and have no responsibility other than to worship. I’d almost forgotten what that was like. For me church attendance was filled with responsibilities. I gave my all on Sundays and came home weary and, quite often satisfied. These days I come home less weary and less satisfied. Going to church no longer has “work” associated with it but it doesn’t carry with it the satisfaction only a pastor enjoys after an especially blessed Sunday morning.

Of course, Jackie and I didn’t retire in a normal way. The day after my last Sunday we headed out on a great adventure, traveling the country in our RV. It’s been a great year and we hope it has been the first of what will be many.

During the past year I stopped carrying an ink pen in my pocket. That meant I could shop for shirts without pockets for the first time in years. It took several months, but I finally stopped wearing a watch. I have a sun tan instead of a white band around my wrist! During the year Jackie and my mornings have morphed into a leisurely time punctuated by a long coffee break about 10:00 each day. Then, many evenings have been spent sitting outside watching the sky; counting the satellites that glide overhead. We’ve even seen a good number of shooting stars. We’re enjoying each other’s company in ways that were almost forgotten.

We aren’t quite there yet but we’re rediscovering something we haven’t experienced since childhood: the joy of doing nothing. Don’t get me wrong: we do a lot. We’ve gone sightseeing, taken hikes, and visited museums and National Parks. However, mixed in now, are days of reading or just fooling with the computer. There are times to just sit and watch the world go by; or blow an evening watching TV. Over the winter, when it was unusually old outside, we watched the entire Star Wars series, from beginning to end, every night for six nights in a row. No meetings to attend, no need to bundle up and go out and fight the weather or the traffic – just time to do what we wanted to do, which was, at that particular moment: nothing.

We’ve missed having family close by. Most people retire and spend more time with loved ones. We, in our own crazy way, retired and immediately traveled far from them. That absent time, though, was somewhat balanced out by the months when we were close by and available to them as never before.

So, here I am, one year into retirement. When anyone asks me how I’m enjoying retirement I generally respond with the quip that had I known it was this much fun, I would have done it 30 years ago. There’s no small amount of truth to it.

After Communion

thimblesIn my early ministry I remember seeing a grandmother allowing her grandkids to gather around the communion ware and drink all the left over grape juice from the tiny cups.  I think that was the first time I ever thought about the remnants of the communion sacrament.  At the time, I hadn’t thought much about it but there was something about that approach that was disturbing to me.

Coming from a non-liturgical background as I had I’d given little thought to what to do with left over bread and wine (grape juice for us) after the service.  Our Roman Catholic friends, meanwhile, have it down to a fine art but, then, they believe in transubstantiation too – that is that the elements become the actual body and blood of our Lord.  After the mass they are left with consecrated elements that must be handled with utmost reverence.  For Protestants and especially for non-liturgical groups the status of left over elements is something less.   As we celebrate the sacrament concerning the bread and wine we pray: “Make them by the power of your Spirit to be for us the body and blood of Christ.”  Having just prayed that prayer a short time earlier, just tossing these things into the trash or down the drain is something akin to handling the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy way.  So what to do?

Fortunately, there are godly people who have thought about this.  After some reading I directed those in our church who prepare the sacrament to this approach; maybe it will help you too.

If we are using the little squares of unleavened bread we return it to the container and put it back in the freezer to be used again.  If we are using baked bread, the portion left over from the actual communion is taken outside to a little used area (like a flower garden) and left for the birds, etc. to consume.  The person taking it out offers a short prayer, thanking the Lord for his sacrifice for us.

Grape juice that has been offered is similarly returned to the earth.  That which was never offered in the service can be drunk as a beverage.

While we don’t accept the concept of transubstantiation we do want to be aware that these elements (that we said are symbols of our Lord’s broken body and shed blood) should be handled in a respectful, reverent way.  You might say that this is a fitting conclusion to a sacrament that emphasizes how common place things can take on uncommon meaning.

Communion

communionI grew up in a very “low church” worship environment.  Our Nazarene Manual directed us to receive the Lord’s Supper at least once a quarter and, apparently, we saw that as a maximum rather than minimum frequency.   As a young pastor I followed that same schedule but over time I moved to a monthly observance, trying to find a middle way between seeing the sacrament as the featured act of worship at one extreme, and as a mandated add-on at the other extreme.

While I don’t think there is a right or wrong approach in how most churches observe the sacrament I do think that the freedom to vary the emphasis and approach and even mechanics of observing it can be an advantage for less liturgical churches.   Whether or not you agree with me here, I hope you’ll find some of these thoughts helpful.

Communion is more of a celebration than anything else.  We don’t believe Jesus dies again each time we receive communion and it isn’t only about shed blood and broken body.   Mainly, we’re celebrating the amazing love the Lord has for us.   Jesus willingly went to the cross because “God so loved the world.”  There, on that old rugged cross, he conquered sin and death.  His victory has become mine.  We don’t celebrate the brokenness and bleeding but we do celebrate the reason for it and what it has accomplished in and for us.  “We come today to celebrate the greatest act of love, the most beneficial sacrifice ever accomplished….”

Communion is the perfect platform for inviting people to come to Jesus.  As a young person I somehow had the idea that the Lord’s Supper could be hazardous to one’s health.  We were to examine ourselves and if we had experienced any spiritual failure we might be wise to skip communion that quarter.  Over time I began to understand that, while it was possible to receive communion in an unworthy manner (that is, without showing proper reverence) that, honestly, no one is worthy of receiving these emblems of the Lord’s body and blood.  Had we been worthy, he would have never had to go to the cross in the first place.  With that in mind, I began to see the sacrament as an invitation to Christ.  As I examine my heart and realize that there are spiritual failures I’m not disqualified from the bread and wine.  Rather, I’m being given an opportunity to avail myself of the mercy and grace of the Lord in a fresh way.  If I come, viewing my receiving communion as a substitute for repentance and faith I’m moving into the “unworthy” territory.  If I come seeking forgiveness and restoration, though, I find life in that sacrament.  “The Bible says we’re to examine ourselves before receiving communion.  So let’s do that.  If, as you consider your relationship with the Lord and find that things aren’t what they ought to be, that doesn’t mean you can’t receive communion today.  Instead, this is an opportunity to make things right with the Lord.  As you receive the bread and wine, receive Jesus into your life all over again.”

Communion is a great way to introduce your child to Jesus.  Honestly, I think our liturgical friends with their emphasis on “first communion” have a great approach.  However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t advantages to a less structured, low church approach.  As a pastor I allowed parents to bring their children forward to receive communion provided the parent agreed to have a discussion with that child about allowing Jesus to be their Lord and Savior before the day was over.  Symbols are powerful and children can grasp spiritual realities earlier than we might think.  I let parents decide if their children are “there” yet.  “Parents, I’ll let you decide when your children are ready to receive communion.  If you do allow your child to come today, I ask this of you: let’s agree that before this day is over you will sit down with your child and talk about the meaning of communion and how it is that a person places their faith in Jesus.”

Communion ought to be the focus of at least one service a year.  Baptism has been called the “entry sacrament” to our life in Christ.  Communion is the “continuing sacrament.”  One Sunday a year the church service should be all about the Lord’s Supper (World Communion Sunday is the first Sunday of October).   Sing songs about it, read the appropriate scriptures, and preach a sermon that reminds us why we celebrate communion.  Talk about our unity with believers across the ages and in the various traditions of Christianity.  Talk about God’s love for us and Christ’s willingness to die for us.  Remind people of its connection to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.  Tell them why the Lord’s Supper is called a “means of grace.”  Then, invite people to the table of the Lord.  Pastor, on this Sunday, you do all the serving, taking the role of Jesus, himself.  “Today is World Communion Sunday and we’re going to join Christians of many traditions around the world in receiving communion.  Before we do that though, let’s think about the meaning and purpose of this sacrament of the Church.”

Thinking about pastor appreciation

Once again we’re in October, the month set aside in many churches for pastor appreciation.  This is my first October in many years to not be appreciated!  The reason is that I retired last May.  I think this gives me a unique perspective on pastor appreciation month.

Through the years I’ve been blessed in so many wonderful and undeserved ways by the congregations I’ve led.  One of my favorite honors was being given tickets to very good seats at a ball game.  Another year we were given a DVD filled with words of appreciation by members of our congregation.  Of course gift cards and cash are always welcome gifts.

I think pastors with children are especially blessed by being given a night out, including babysitting and the cost of a nice meal together.

Thinking in more general ways about pastoral care I think many pastors need to be encouraged to take some time off.   These days most pastors have spouses who work outside the home.  That means that their household seldom, if ever, gets time off together.  Say the spouse works a Monday-Friday job.  However, the pastor’s busiest days are Saturday and Sunday.  That means they never get a morning to sleep in or enjoy some “us time” around the house.  One way to bless your pastor is to arrange for your parsonage family to enjoy a long weekend once in a while.

Finally, I’ll let you in on a little secret.  Most pastors put a great deal of work into their sermons, Bible studies, etc.  They may not openly admit it, but a lack of interest by their laypeople in this element of their ministry is rather painful.  Pastors notice when ushers receive the offering and then disappear out to the church foyer for the rest of the service (specifically, for the sermon).  They notice when people skip other services, like prayer meetings and Bible studies.  It’s one thing to give the pastor an appreciation card during the month of October and something much better to allow the pastor to minister to you, fulfilling the calling of God on their life.  One of the best ways to show appreciation for your pastor is to show an interest in their ministry.  Stated rather bluntly, if you appreciate the pastor, stop hurting him or her by displaying a lack of interest in their preaching and teaching ministry.

An old preacher’s line is “saying ‘amen’ to a preacher is like saying sik’em to a dog.”  In the context of pastor appreciation I’d say that letting your pastor minister to you and then, after the service, shaking his or her hand and telling them that you appreciated their sermon is where pastor appreciation starts.

How well is your church entrance marked?

One thing we’ve noticed in our months on the road is that church entrances  aren’t especially well marked. I know that people who attend every Sunday don’t think much about it but it’s not always as apparent as they might think.

In one place we managed to walk into the sanctuary but there was no foyer and we found ourselves interrupting a Sunday School class in progress. The locals who don’t attend SS know to enter via the fellowship hall for coffee till church time. Instead, we blundered into the middle of a class. The teacher stopped teaching, everyone turned around, and someone pointed us down the hallway to the official “waiting” area.

In another place we sat out in the parking lot hoping someone would arrive so we could follow them in. There were literally 5 entrances to pick from. Then, once we gave up and guessed (correctly) and were inside, we found that most people parked on the opposite side of the church and used an entrance we hadn’t even seen. I would have sure liked to have used that entrance because it was to a proper foyer. As it was I had to walk across the back of the sanctuary as the service was already underway to go find the men’s room. Everyone seated near the back of the sanctuary watched me as I looked around to spot the proper door to exit to find the hallway most people used when coming and going.

In another place we parked in the first parking lot we saw, walked clear around the building to find some double glass doors and enter. Once inside we saw that the doors we had parked near provided perfectly acceptable entrance to the opposite side of the foyer. However, there were no signs or other indication of that.

Sometimes the entrance is obvious to anyone. Otherwise, I think every church should at least have signs posted on the main sidewalks pointing to the entrance people are expected to use.