spirituality

The Best Thing About Church

It was a long, hard catechism process fraught with communication issues. You see, she’s Deaf. I have some basic signing, and she is an excellent lip reader, so most of the time it worked all right. She has told me repeatedly that I saved her life. She’s never been involved in a church before, and she’s been pulled in deep her. She loves women’s Bible study and attends faithfully.

Today she nearly cried.

After all that, what is it that affected her most? More than preaching the Gospel? More than the announcement of forgiveness or a home in heaven? More than peace with God?

I sang “Happy Birthday” to her.

“She was almost crying,” another church member told me after. “She said no pastor had ever sung Happy Birthday to her before.”

Um… ok.

Look, I get that as a small congregation, we get to make things far more personal than larger congregations. I can get away with silly things like singing Happy Birthday on a Sunday morning right before Bible study. I get that the people here greatly value that personal touch.

But… but the center isn’t my personal touch. That should be a “bonus feature” on the DVD of church. The main feature is Jesus. Not pastor – Jesus!

I’ve long struggled with church worship here. I’ve only barely been touched by pastor worship… but now I see it a little. It happened with a teenager, too. He told me that he can’t pay attention to other pastors, and now that I’ve had to enact discipline on his mom, he refuses to see me. So he might as well not go to any church, because he won’t get anything out of those other pastors, anyway. That’s pastor worship there – and other sins, too.

I have told people repeatedly – it’s about Jesus, not about me. When I leave (and it is a when, whether that’s in one year or twenty) – when I leave, nobody better leave this congregation. If they do, it shows me they were attached to me and not attached to Jesus.

I can’t save anyone, no matter how many times I might sing Happy Birthday to them. Knowing me will not forgive any of your sins.

This may shock you, but I’m not Jesus.

I appreciate that this woman appreciated my singing Happy Birthday. I do these things on purpose to express love. And I’m not calling her a “pastor-ologist” or anything like that. She trusts Christ and rejoices in him.

But if that’s the thing that gets her most excited about church… something’s lacking.

Does that mean I need to be less friendly? I don’t think that’s the solution. Can I point better to Christ? Well, yeah. Obviously. I can always do that better.

The best thing about church, though, shouldn’t be the pastor. And it shouldn’t be the people. Those things are nice and good, but they shouldn’t be the highlight.

The best thing about church is Jesus: hearing what he has done proclaimed to you; praising in response; confessing sins and hearing forgiveness; receiving the Sacrament… these things are the best things about church. Not pastor!

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Loving the Church but Hating Jesus

I probably got a lot of people angry at me today.

My congregation has suffered greatly over the last few years. In fact, my first year here had a good probability of being this congregation’s last, as it had shrunk due to a few congregational crises. There simply weren’t enough people to keep going. Frankly, we’re still tip-toeing close to the edge, though not as close to the abyss as we had been.

However, I’ve seen a lot of “church worship” here.

“Pastor, nothing will ever make me leave this church.”

“Pastor, close your Bible. That’s not why we’re here.”

“Pastor, stop preaching that part of God’s Word. It scares people away.”

“Pastor, we need more people in the seats.”

Some of those are pretty obviously despising God’s Word – but how are they worshipping the church? Well, each one of those things is motivated by a desire to fill the church, and not necessarily with a desire to introduce those people to Jesus. Getting them into church is the important part.

See, we’ve been in survival mode for so long, and we’ve seen the possibility of closing for so long, that so many in the congregation are hanging on to the congregation with white knuckles.

Is that really so bad? Isn’t the church a gift from God? (more…)

When do you give up?

How many times do you invite someone back to Jesus before you give up?

That’s right. You never give up.

How much time do you spend on that person when there are so many others that need that invitation, who have never known Jesus? How much time do you spend on the stubborn people that refuse to admit sin, who believe that church is for “free time,” who don’t think that Jesus is worth waking up for?

Yes, yes, I know. Every soul is precious. I don’t disagree! But, practically speaking, there is only so much time in a day, so much energy in a person, and so many people you can touch at a time.

Why am I asking this? (more…)

Ask.

Following our big dinner for the homeless last week, we’ve gotten a sudden increase in calls of people needing help. This doesn’t surprise nor bother me overly much, at least at this point. One family in particular, when I visited them, had nothing. No table, no television, just some mattresses on the floor of their apartment.

We were able to get some food – mostly canned things like soup and some spaghettios for the kids. And when I delivered, I found out… they didn’t even have a can opener to make use of our gift.

I looked. I found no can openers that weren’t incredibly expensive. I considered. Who in the congregation has a well-stocked kitchen that might be willing to donate an extra can opener? I thought for a little bit and called up a certain woman. I explained the situation and asked for a can opener for this family.

She said yes. Fantastic!

And then she asked if they had cups. Or dishes. Or bowls. Or silverware. Or a table. Or…

And she’s provided all of that. She wants no recognition at all; she simply wants to provide. I think I need to tell her to slow down, simply so the family doesn’t depend on us. I’m kinda swimming in the waters for the first time of what wise generosity is!

But it reminds me of something Jesus said. “Ask, and it will be given.” And in another place, “You do not have because you do not ask.” Here was a family that I might have had to say ‘no’ to. Yet, I thought to ask a member for them. And I didn’t receive what I asked for. I got a flood of blessings!

And isn’t that what Jesus does? We ask… and we receive such huge blessings far beyond what we ask for! Even if the answer is ‘no,’ the blessings flow so much more.

We ask for forgiveness for the sins that most bother us… and Jesus answers with a flood of blessings. “Here, I won’t just forgive that sin, but EVERY sin! And I’ll give you baptism as an assurance that you are my child. And I’ll give you my very own body and blood in the sacrament to assure you and give you forgiveness. And I’ll tell you again and again, too!”

And from there flow so many other blessings…

Basically, my member taught me this week: ask. Doesn’t mean I’ll get what I’ll want of course, but I should ask.

So, I guess I’m going to ask more often instead of just assuming the answer will be no!

Broken by the Goodness of God

The ministry has been so hard lately – so hard that even on days where God sends so many blessings, I see only failure.

Through these hard times, I have felt pressure, but I have not been shattered.

Today, though, I was broken.

A few months ago, a congregation member asked me if we might better serve our neighbor by not doing a food drive, but by serving an actual meal to the homeless of our community. I thought the idea had merit and blessed a continued look at it.

Today that idea bore fruit as we gathered to serve a Thanksgiving Feast to the homeless. A member had contacted a local shelter, asking if they could use such a meal and how we should go about such a project. Through the shelter we invited seventy-five homeless individuals and families. Another member suggested, if we were serving a meal anyway, why not invite our prospect and delinquent member list?

Hey, why not? (more…)

Not Soon Enough…

I made the women cry.

Several weeks ago I asked our teen group if they’d be interested in singing a song for Saints Triumphant Sunday – which was today. Many said yes. As we practiced, it became clear that really only a few meant it. But as we practiced the song, parents joined in… then another random family… and then another… and we suddenly had an ad hoc choir made up of people that aren’t normally in our church choir.

And today, for the sermon, we took a tour of heaven. We started in Eden, actually, and saw the tree of life… and then saw Adam and Eve choose a different tree. We saw the curse that God put on them. And we felt the weight of that curse. We explored the history of this world, the history of our own lives, and found the burden of the curse very real. And we saw that yes, we ourselves had earned that curse.

We saw that at the end, when everything looks destroyed, Jesus returns. And he gives us a tour of heaven. We see the stream of the water of life… but it doesn’t come from us. It comes from outside us… it flows from the Throne of God and of the Lamb. We saw that tree of life back – back again! And we pluck the fruit from its branches and we take a bite, the juice dribbling down our chins… and Jesus is the one who brought us that tree. And Revelation says that “there is no more curse.”

And we saw that Jesus came… and that he is the one who has taken the curse away. He was the only one good enough to earn the right to eat from the tree of life… but he chose a different tree. Unlike Adam and Eve who chose a different tree out of rebellion, Jesus chose a tree out of love. He chose the tree of the cross. He felt the burden of that curse. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. And he became the curse for us… and gave us forgiveness.

We saw that Jesus isn’t just the door into heaven, but the direct source of everything good there. (more…)

Pastor on Mute

So, I was useless this week. I canceled pretty much every appointment. I did half the work I set out for myself to do. In fact, I could only achieve about half my normal work. I was physically incapable of doing more.

No, I wasn’t flat on my back with an illness. And no, I didn’t get run over by a bus and get laid up in a hospital. I was in my office every day, working on office stuffs. But I couldn’t visit people… because I lost my voice.

Do you have any idea how much a pastor relies on his voice? It means I can’t communicate the Gospel easily. It’s near impossible to comfort another person. If the other person is susceptible to illness (such as someone who’s older or someone in the hospital) I can’t even visit them. Bible studies? Nope. Sermons? Nada. I can listen, sure! And that’s really important to do — but I also need to be able to clearly communicate what God has done to people. And I can’t do that without a voice, unless the other person knows sign language. (I know basics, so that would work…)

I actually lost it over a week ago, so Sunday morning was a struggle. I posted a bit on that last week. But then… I had to cancel almost all my meetings. I had a lot of evangelism visits lined up this week… all canceled. Instead, I languished in my office. I worked hard on the sermon (and honestly, this was a good week to spend extra time on the sermon). I prepared Bible studies. I still did lots of work, but spent very little time with people.

And you know what? It was frustrating! I got grumpy. I had little motivation to do the actual necessary office work. I wanted to nap a lot, and it wasn’t from the cold. It was just me being grumpy.

By the time my voice came back late Thursday, I was ready to go. I spent a good chunk of Saturday going out and visiting people, and my spirit soared. There is something about getting out and serving people that helped me. Sure, the interactions were generally positive. All but one visit were evangelism visits, as I stop by just to see how people are doing and remind them that hey, there’s a pastor and a church ready to serve them!

(It also helped immensely that one such family came to visit our congregation for the first time today!)

But I’ve learned this about me: If you take away my ability to serve the congregation, I get grumpy. Now, that doesn’t happen if I’m vacation or serving in a different capacity – say, at a pastor’s conference. But if I have a week straight of nothing but office work, I get cranky.

I guess I just need to serve.

And also get rid of the cough that’s returned. That can’t be a good thing.

It’s not my church.

I have an imagination. Sometimes that’s a blessing. I love making up stories. God has given me the ability to tell his stories in a way that people hear “story” and not “boring Sunday school,” and so they learn more about the Bible. Imagination is a good thing.

…and then it’s not.

This past week, I had two related meetings. Both of them were high stressors for me — to the point that I wasted two days this past week, not able to do any office work, not able to visit anyone, because my head was in those meetings and mentally preparing and bracing myself. I do not exaggerate when I say: If these meetings went badly, this congregation might not make it to the end of 2013. And my brain decided the best thing to do was to make that worst case scenario the most likely scenario.

And that’s when imagination is a bad thing.  (more…)

I wasn’t made for the ministry.

I wasn’t made for the ministry.

That’s the conclusion I had today. My wife termed it a “fire day.” I have office days, visiting days, and now I have fire days. Days where everything catches on fire, and I need to put them all out.

It’s so stupid. A member doesn’t want to listen to what God’s Word says, so she simply tells me that I’m “just another person silly.” Discredit the messenger, discredit the message. Oldest trick in the book. And her life is a mess. I’ve wept for her and with her. She should know the love I have for her, that I want what’s best for her.

And now I feel betrayed. And it’s stupid. It’s not me she’s spurning. It’s Jesus.

That’s supposed to make me feel better. It doesn’t. Now, instead of rejecting some schmuck, she’s rejecting what her Savior says. And I weep for her more.  (more…)

Stranded

It wasn’t that bad… but it wasn’t pretty.

Beware the vengeance of squirrels, for it shall come suddenly upon you, like a wave of acorns.

This past Monday I hopped in the van to get to a meeting with pastors from some sister congregations and then on to visit some shut-ins. I looked forward to a full afternoon of growing in Christ and serving brothers and sisters in Christ.

And then the “check engine” light started blinking. And the van stopped functioning.

I made it home, opened the hood, and found just about every wire and cable I could see… snipped. My initial thought was vandalism (we live in a neighborhood where, while it’s not the most likely thing to happen, isn’t exactly outside the realm of possibility). I called up a congregation member who suggested squirrels.

Ah, those pesky rodents.

For the last two years, they’d been enjoying the comfort of the church’s ceilings for their nests. They got in through a hole in the roof’s sealing and chattered away up there. This spring we sealed it all up. And now… well, apparently furry vengeance struck.  (more…)