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.

Preparing the church for a pastoral sabbatical

The value of a pastor taking a sabbatical leave after a number of years of service to a local congregation is gaining more and more recognition.  In this post I’m not going to attempt to make a case for sabbatical leave, but am going to talk about how a church can prepare for the pastor’s absence for an extended amount of time.  This subject needs careful consideration and it’s important for the pastor as well as for the congregation.  Outsiders might think that all the pastor does is preach a sermon every Sunday morning, but as they say, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Generally speaking, the pastor not only does “spiritual things” like making hospital visits and carrying a burden of prayer for the church family but also functions as a sort of CEO who makes constant on-the-fly decisions concerning how the church calendar is organized, what is emphasized in the church announcements, and what “extra” features are included in a given Sunday’s order of worship.

If the pastor just walks away, off to enjoy a month’s long sabbatical a power void will be created in the church.  Well-meaning people will sense that void and step into fill it and some, who maybe aren’t so well-meaning will see it as an opportunity to reshape the church as they see fit.  The pastor who has happily ridden off into the sunset may return to find such a mess that all the relaxation of the sabbatical will drain away as they have to deal with the destruction that the power void has created.

With all that in mind, a wise pastor and church leadership will firmly address leadership issues before the pastor leaves town.  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Don’t just engage a sabbatical interim pastor and toss it all in their lap.  There are levels of trust and responsibility that an outsider, or even an insider lacking sufficient experience, can’t address.  Make a list of exactly what that person will do: preaching, administering the sacraments, praying the pastoral prayer.  The interim will basically do the “tip of the iceberg” stuff that outsiders think is the only thing the pastor does.
  2. List all the other things the pastor normally does in a week and assign each portion of that to a different lay leader.  Who will initiate the church prayer chain?  Who will visit the sick in the hospital?   Fill every position with a willing layperson.
  3. List all the organizational responsibilities of the pastor and assign them.  Different churches have different organizational flows, but if the pastor signs off on the music, what goes into the church bulletin, etc. name the person who is going to have that authority.
  4. Name a person who will serve as “service platform manager” – they will do the things in the service that the pastor normally does: do the call to worship, offer the benediction, call for the ushers, welcome visitors, etc.
  5. Commit to the current structure of the church during the sabbatical.  There will be no changes to the order of worship, the makeup of the praise team, or the leadership of the church.  The sabbatical will not be the time when things will be changed because someone with a big voice insists that the offering should be taken differently or the announcements should be done at a different time in the service.
  6. Having prepared for all the expected things, prepare for the unexpected.  Create a “pastoral committee” of three trusted lay leaders in the church.  Grant them “pastoral authority” in the church.  When a decision has to be made that would normally be made by the pastor, refer it to the committee – any two of the three can decide.  Some churches think that they will just give the interim pastor that authority, but that’s a mistake.  That person won’t have the knowledge of people and past practices of the church to make decisions as the pastor.  If the church names just one lay person their decisions will be subject to doubt and disagreement.  A committee of three will carry a sense of authority and fairness.

All of the above can be done in just one board meeting if the pastor has done the necessary homework to list all that they do in a given week.  Having made the appointments, publish them in the church bulletin prior to and then during the duration of the sabbatical.  It will remind the congregation that the church isn’t adrift while the pastor is away.  It will remind those who have an agenda of their own that there is already an agenda in place.  Not only that, but developing lay leaders is a Biblical model for the church.  The returning pastor might just find that some of the things that have been occupying his or her time really was never his or her job in the first place!

 

Church Website Advice

These days Jackie and I are enjoying visiting lots of different churches.  Every week or two we are in a different place and ready to join some congregation in worship.  Being Nazarenes our first choice is one of our own tribe although I am quick to add that we’ve enjoyed fellowship in a variety of groups.

Sometimes we’ve driven past a church nearby and have stopped to check out any church sign for information, but most of the time we head for the internet.  The results are a real mixed bag.  I’ve seen church websites that looked terrific and I’ve hunted for church information only to come up empty.  I’ve found lots of good, current information and I’ve found some nice looking websites that are horribly out of date.

So here are a few words of advice concerning your church web site:

  1. If you don’t have a web site get one!  Listen, whether or not you are interested in the Internet, most people are.  Not having a website today is equal to not being in the phone book 10 years ago.  You NEED a website.
  2. If you post current events keep them current.  Listing last year’s Christmas party as current says bad things about your church.  Compare it to not having the grass mowed at the church – it speaks of not caring, not being organized, and of neglect.
  3. If you aren’t going to keep the site current then DON’T post any current events.  Turn the website into a billboard for the church with only static information including some of the things I’m about to list.
  4. Post your service times and make them easy to find.
  5. Post your church address and include directions.  It’s amazing how many church websites never bother to name their state.  Put complete directions, and make them easy to find.
  6. If you want to do more, a really nice thing to do is include some photos, especially of the church in worship.  My wife often wonders what the ladies wear to church.  She knows that we will be welcome even if we don’t quite meet the local dress code, but she wants to fit in.  Photos of people in a regular worship service help a lot.

Remember, people DO look you up on the Internet.  Don’t just have a Facebook page – not everyone can see it.  DON’T let someone’s nephew who is a whizbang at doing fancy webpages do yours.  It needs to look on purpose and grown up.  Simple with relevant information is better than impressive and out of date because no one who actually cares about the church’s image has a clue as to how to update the page and the nephew is long gone.  You can have a reasonable, easy to maintain, easy to Google website for very little money.  Really, trust me, you NEED a website that meets at least certain minimum standards.

 

Previenent Grace Along the Highway

2013-04-15 10.32.25We’re staying at a rural RV park for a few weeks and it’s been a bit challenging for me to find a good place to walk.  For years now I’ve combined a walk with my prayer time so it’s an important part of my day, both spiritually and physically.  There is no city park (or better said, no city, period) so I’ve been walking along the highway.  Again, not the best place.  There’s considerable traffic, most of it flying along at 70 mph or more.  The only redeeming factor is that the shoulders of Texas highways are wide so I can keep at least a bit of distance between me and the traffic.  Still, it’s not a very good solution and I’ll be glad when I’m in more pleasant surroundings for my daily prayer-walk.

The other day as I walked I was startled when a vehicle pulled up beside of me.  It was a county deputy.  He wanted to know if I was okay or needed a ride.  I assured him that I was okay and thanked him for asking.  In retrospect, I think he was doing more than being a friendly policeman.  He was probably checking me out.  The county jail is about three miles down the road.  Either way, his checking on me was more part of his job than his being a Good Samaritan.

Today, as I walked toward the traffic an older black pickup passed by.  He was on the opposite side of the road headed north and, like everyone else, not letting any grass grow under his wheels.  However, as he passed me his brake lights came on.  He pulled off to the shoulder about a quarter mile past me, turned around, and drove back to me.

A man and a woman were in the pickup.  They had multiple tattoos and piercings.  He had a couple on his face on either side of his chin.  He rolled the window down and said, “Are you okay?  Do you need a ride?”

I assured him that I was fine, just getting a walk.  “Are you sure?” he asked.  I said thanks for asking and added, “You’re a good guy, I really appreciate your checking on me.”

With that he did another u-turn and was off again.

I began thinking about his stopping and offering me a ride – not just stopping, but making the effort to turn around and come back to check on me.

He and his rider didn’t look like “my kind of people.”  No tattoos here.  No piercings either.  But he was concerned about this white haired guy walking down a busy highway.

John Wesley talked about “prevenient grace.”   You might think of it as the evidence that we’re created in the image of God.  In our fallen state we don’t reflect that image very well, but it’s still there.  It’s what causes people to want to show kindness to strangers.

I saw it in action out along the highway today.

My how things have changed

As a young preacher (and I started preaching at age 16) I was encouraged to use lots of Scripture references in my preaching.  I probably overdid it and over time dialed things back, especially as I moved away from proof texting.

Still, I often mention different verses in a sermon, generally to give an example of what I’m talking about.

At first, I took strips of paper and numbered them in the order of verses I intended to mention.  I bookmarked my Bible with those bits of paper so I could easily find the verses.  As you can guess, it wasn’t a very good plan and sometimes left me searching, first for that numbered slip of paper and, not seeing it for some reason, for the passage itself.

My next plan of action was to type the verse directly into my notes.   That solved the slips of paper problem and worked okay.  However, at some point it dawned on me that I was going to be typing some verses many times in my preaching career.

 So, I hit upon a plan.  Every time I referred to a verse, I’d take time to type it onto a 3×5 card.  In my sermon notes, I simply included the reference.  I’d organize the cards in order for that sermon, then, after the service, I’d file the cards by book of the Bible.

From that point on a part of sermon preparation was to go through my Bible verse file and see if I’d already added the verses I wanted for the sermon.  I’d add the news ones for that sermon and then file them after the sermon.

As you can guess, after 20 years of so of preaching, I developed quite a file system.  It was so useful that it crossed my mind that the file box and cards needed to be placed into the hands of some young preacher when my preaching days were over.

Then in the mid-1990’s I added a computer to my study and things began to change.  I now had the Bible in electronic form and in multiple translations.  Inserting the text of a verse into the sermon notes was a simple copy/paste process.  My extensive collection of 3×5 cards was no longer necessary.

For years the file box remained on my desk simply because that is where it had always been.  Finally, needing desk space, I moved it to storage in the attic.  There it stayed for several years until today.

I decided it was time for me to clear out the attic and there, covered with dust, was my old file box of scriptures.  In spite of the countless hours of work represented by those 3×5 cards it was time for it to go.  I reluctantly brought the poor old filebox down, took these final photos of it, and put it all in the recycle bin.  Just awhile ago the pickup crew came, and not knowing or caring what was in the bin, carried it off.

Looking back on my system, I think I hit on a good plan.  I accomplished exactly what needed to be accomplished.  Not only that, but by typing out the passages, I became more intimate with them.

Still, over time, things change and the need for that approach is now part of my personal past.  Happily, even though the way I handled the Bible has changed, I’m glad to report that it’s message is just as current and needed as ever before.

Reading the Word of the Lord

Most of the Bible was written to be read aloud.  There are a few personal letters, etc., but by and large the writers never envisioned people owning personal, leather bound, red letter, annotated copies of their words.  Prior to the invention of the printing press and the Reformation, a big part of going to church was listening to someone read Scripture.  For the vast majority of Christians it was only at church that they encountered the Bible.  Being a reader of Scripture in church was a honor and privilege.  The reader took that job seriously and prepared for that part of worship with all the effort of a preacher or singer.

With all this in mind, over a year ago I decided to read the New Testament through out loud.  When I finished the New Testament I decided to continue on with the Old Testament and I have now finished the entire Bible.

It has been an interesting journey.  There are passages I know fairly well and usually when I read them I unintentionally go into a sort of hyper drive and speed my way through them.  Not this time.  It was word by word.  The whole process was slower, more methodical.  I tended to hear the message differently than when I just read silently.  I’m not about to tell you that I think it’s vastly superior.  I will tell you that it’s different.  I came away with a different feeling about some passages than before.

The Old Testament prophets were a challenge.  Sometimes there is page after page of condemnation; lots of doom and gloom.  Reading aloud made me feel somewhat depressed.  On a practical level, I realized how repetitive some of those writings are.  The prophet says something one way, then he repeats it another way, and then does it all over again.  Doing it out loud made that somehow more obvious to me than before.

Another challenge is names.  Some portions, in Numbers for instance, are lists of names.  Many of the prophets spend a lot of time with names of towns.  I cut myself just a bit of slack on the names.  If I didn’t immediately recognize the name I’d just say the first letter of the name and keep reading: “A son of Z, son of Benjamin.”  I guess that was cheating a bit, but since no one was listening but me I decided it was a reasonable course of action.

One thing about all those names of people and places, was that it reminded me of just how grounded those stories are in history.  These are real people and real places.  I know it because the writer named names.

I don’t suggest that everyone ought to do this.  Many people just need to read the Bible; to get on a plan and stick with it.  The more you read the more you come to love the Bible.  If you haven’t been reading the Bible, just commit yourself to one page a day.  Start with the Gospels.  Make it easy on yourself.  Some start off in Genesis, enjoy the opening stories and then can’t make it through Exodus not to mention Leviticus.  When you are ready to tackle the Old Testament, mix it in with the New Testament.  Do one chapter of the New and one chapter of the Old each day.  Throw in one Psalm each day if you have time.  Reading the Bible through is a journey and not a race.

Then, maybe someday, you’ll be looking for a different approach.  When you get there, you might want to try it out loud.  Reading God’s Word as it was originally read does have it’s rewards.

God sometimes colors outside the lines

One of our challenges as God’s people is to know what we believe and why, yet at the same time, allow God to work in ways that, to us, color outside the lines. We aren’t saved by believing all the right things — we’re saved by grace. In the OT story of Jonah he knows for sure that the people of Nineveh are bad people, enemies of God’s people. He doesn’t want to go and warn them of judgment to come because he fears they will repent and escape that judgment. He knows God isn’t like him – that God is compassionate and forgiving…and all Jonah wants is to see Nineveh destroyed.

We can arrive at an understanding of the basics of Christianity and pretty much agree that some things are outside of our faith. We can condemn some beliefs as out and out heretical – and do so for all the right reasons. One result is that we believe we are mandated to take the real gospel to those in that “Nineveh.”

At the same time – and here’s the challenge – we have to remember that believing all the right things is, for some reason, more important to us than it is to God. By his grace he colors outside the lines, accepting people who are on a journey and a long way from arriving at the “right” destination.

I’m glad for God’s grace to me. Sometimes, I’m a bit uncomfortable with his grace to you.

Google Voice for Church – and Personal – use

If you phone my wife during the work day her cell phone will ring.  If you call in the evenings, her cell phone and our home phone will ring at the same time.  If she’s at home she can use the home phone, if she’s out of the house, she catches the call on her cell phone.  If you call in the middle of the night her phone(s) may ring, or you may get voicemail, depending on who you are.  When she’s on vacation, if family members call, her cell phone will ring.  However, if others call, they go straight to voicemail.  If someone leaves a voicemail, she gets an email transcription of their voice message.  When someone texts her she can either read and respond to the text from her phone, or if she’s near a computer, she can read it and respond to it on a computer.

Someday she may decide to change cell phone numbers or we may get a new home number (or do away with it all together).  However, all our friends will never know the difference because the number they dial or text to will stay the same.
It’s all done with Google Voice.  Just about everybody should have a Google Voice account.  When you sign up you can pick an available local phone number.  You then configure the account to handle calls and texts as I described above. 
Think of the advantages of this service for a church.  You can customize voicemail based on who is calling, you can listen to voicemail as it’s being entered and answer right then, you can customize what callers are forwarded to what phone(s), and much more.  

And…it’s free!