Amazed and Perplexed

The Bible is filled with stories about people who were amazed and perplexed. Think about Moses standing before a bush that was burning, but that was never reduced to ash. Think about the Israelites standing on the shores of the Red Sea when it opened to provide a path of escape from the Egyptians and that, then, sealed off the way back to everything that they had known. Think about the people that Jesus healed and how people who were watching it happen responded by saying, “Who is this man?” Think about the people who witnessed the day of Pentecost – a day when tongues of fire fell from the sky, a day when the followers of Jesus spoke in languages that they had never learned, and a day when people thought that the only way to explain what was happening was to conclude that the disciples were drunk.

We live in swiftly-changing times. Once healthy and thriving churches are facing uncertainty and financial difficulties. Attendance is shrinking, and many churches have lost touch with the communities that they serve. New faces are seldom seen in worship. Many people in the Church are scrambling to find a way to save what’s left after two years of struggling through the pandemic. And when people see their churches growing smaller and struggling, the first thing that they are tempted to do is draw inward and protect what they know and love. But, sadly, drawing inward only makes the problems and the challenges worse.

Understanding mission and having a clear vision of ministry is vital in times like these. Churches that are focusing upon what they believe Jesus wants them to be doing right now are doing better than churches that are not doing that. Churches that are asking, “Who are we?” and “What is Jesus calling us to do?” are finding new and exciting doors to the future while other churches are continuing to shrink. I believe that every church needs to be asking itself: “What parts of our ministry are leaving people amazed and perplexed, and wanting to learn more about Jesus?” That’s what ministry is about. People get excited when they believe that they’re doing God’s work with their own hands. People want to financially support and be a part of what’s happening when they believe that their time and financial resources are being used in life-giving and life-changing ways. People want to learn more about Jesus when they are invited to “come and see” what Jesus is doing with their own two eyes. Mission and having a clear vision of ministry create focus, energy, excitement, and passion.

If your congregation is struggling, right now, you are not alone. Many congregations are facing significant challenges. But years of struggle and decline do not have to write the last chapters of your church’s history. If you are looking to turn the tide, here are some ideas:

First: Gather the leaders of your congregation and spend an evening in prayer. Ask God to send the Holy Spirit to close doors that need to be closed (think about the Red Sea being closed to prevent the Israelites from returning to Egypt) and to open new doors to the future. The Church of 2019 is not coming back. We need to open our hands and to let go of some things that are no longer working, so that God can give us something new.

Second: Study the community and the people that you serve. Can you clearly describe the people who live within 10 miles of your church? How old are they? How old are their kids? What challenges and concerns do they face? The average age of an adult in the community that surrounds the church I serve is 49 and the average age of their first child is between 20 and 25. How can that information shape ministry? What percentage of the people in the community that surrounds your church are divorced? Are you building your ministry as one that primarily ministers to married adults with children? Do unmarried and divorced people feel welcomed? Are people in your community at an age where the care of their parents is as important as the care of their children? People in their late 40’s and early 50’s reexamine their priorities, fear that they are becoming irrelevant, are facing an “empty nest” for the first time in their lives. How does this shape the ministry of a congregation? What kind of “Good News” do people who live within 10 miles of your church building need to hear?

Third: Pray about your ministry and about how you are engaging your community. What message of “Good News” are you proclaiming? If children are going to school hungry (nearly 50% of the children in a community that surrounds the church that I serve are going to school without breakfast) could you provide food for them to eat on weekends and over the summer (when schools are closed)? If people struggle with addictions are you providing a place where groups like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous can meet? How are you showing children and young people in your community that they are important to God? How are you showing people who are lonely that they are not forgotten? What is Jesus telling you to do, right now? Pray about it. I realize that there’s no congregation that can solve every problem and challenge, but every church can pick one or two challenges to focus upon. Stay focused. How is/can the ministry of your congregation bring a word of “Good News” to those who live within 10 miles of your church building before you reach beyond that radius? Think of that 10-mile radius as your church’s “parish.” How can prayer lead to action?

Fourth: Make a plan, establish clear and measurable goals, tell people what you are doing, and tell the story of how God is at work in the world and in your church. We live in a society where “the best story wins” and we, as people in the church, can never forget that. People are drawn to stories that are engaging and that help them to feel that they can be a part of something both exciting and good. Don’t forget to use the power of electronics! Update your church’s website. Realize that people are spending more and more time on electronic devices and figure out a way to use those devices to tell the story of what Jesus is doing with you and your congregation, right now. Create an exciting story by engaging in life-giving and life-changing ministries, and don’t forget to share what you are doing. Never forget that “the best story wins.” People want to be a part of something exciting; and, when they feel that they are a part of something that is important and that is changing lives, they are more likely to volunteer their time and support what’s happening financially.

The Bible is filled with stories where the people were left amazed and perplexed. And the challenge that’s being set before the Church is to live into that amazed perplexity today. God is doing wonderful things in the world. God is enabling people to do exciting things that they never imagined they could do.

Which parts of your congregation’s story are leaving people amazed and perplexed? Which parts of your congregation’s story are leaving people at a point in life where they want to learn more about Jesus, be a part of what’s happening, and know that what they’re doing is making our world a better place for us all?

What Can I Do?

There are times in life when words can’t fix things.

We were all stunned, last week, when a young man walked into an elementary school, and shot 19 little children and 2 of their teachers. Almost at once, people were inclined to say things like “You are in my thoughts and prayers” to people whose lives had been shattered and whose lives will never be the same. Politicians quickly aligned themselves in the Capitol Building and we heard the same rhetoric that we’ve been listening to for decades. We are divided. We can’t seem to agree about a path forward. Many of us probably feel powerless and unable to do anything in the face of continuing tragedy. We might even be asking each other, “What can we do?” or, more personally, be asking ourselves, “What can I do?”

Jesus once prayed for His followers in words that are now called the “High Priestly Prayer” which is found in the seventeen chapter of John’s Gospel. Jesus is praying for the Church. Jesus is praying that God will make us one with each other. Jesus realized that those who follow Him have an opportunity to change the world and make it into a better place.

And, with that in mind, if you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” here are some ideas that spring from the “High Priestly Prayer” and that can help us to be “one”:

America is the way that it is right now because of the way that we act. We honk the horn on our automobiles or scream at other drivers who don’t burn rubber through intersections and get out of our way when stoplights turn green. We are tired and stressed, right now, partly because of the pandemic, and that is clearly visible in the ways that we act. We are all on edge. We drive and act aggressively. We argue about things on social media that just don’t matter. If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” perhaps it’s time to slow down; to think more intentionally about the ways you are interacting with others; and, in times of conflict, to ask yourself, “Is what I am doing helping the situation, or is what I am doing ratcheting the conflict up to a higher level?”

America is the way that it is right now because of the ways that we talk to each other. We type words on social media platforms that we would never say to people face-to-face. We label people with words that pigeonhole all of us into enemy camps that are filled with people who cannot have a reasonable discussion. We, sometimes, even say things that we know are going to cut other people like a knife. If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” perhaps it’s time to stop for a moment and think about the words that you use. And, it’s not just about the words. Think about the context. Think about how you think others are going to hear what you say. Think about the setting. Are you trying to address a difficult issue when you are in a public setting where the person you are speaking with will be embarrassed? Studies have shown that discussing difficult issues while eating a meal can be absolutely disastrous. If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” watch the way that you are talking to other people.

America is, also, the way that it is right now because of the specific words that we use. We have, sadly, become more accepting of name-calling and abusive language. St. James once said that our words have the power to start a raging and consuming fire. If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” perhaps it’s time to think more about the words you use. Do your words build other people up, or do they tear others down? Do your words uplift, or belittle? How often do you swear? If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” perhaps you could select your words more carefully and stop setting fires?

American is, lastly, the way that it is right now because people have forgotten about the 8th Commandment. Martin Luther once said that the 8th Commandment is one that calls us to interpret the actions of other people in the best possible way. Most people are trying to do the best that they can. Most people do not live their lives intentionally trying to hurt people and do things that are wrong. If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” perhaps you could embrace a more charitable attitude toward other people. It’s easy to misinterpret the actions of other people – particularly when you are stressed and impatient. It’s easy to find yourself bearing false witness in times of conflict and disagreement. If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” perhaps you could look for the best in other people and interpret their actions in a more charitable way?

There are times when words can’t fix things; however, there ARE things that you can be doing during these unusual times to make our world a better place. We may not be able to control the behavior of other people, but we can control the ways that we act and interact with others. And, even though you may not be able to fix everything that’s happening in America, right now, we can all ask ourselves, “If it’s not going to be me, who is it going to be?”

Jesus, Mental Health and You

May is, traditionally, celebrated as Mental Health Awareness Month.

We have learned how to treat many different illnesses and diseases including: COVID, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. But many of us feel uncomfortable about things that can affect our brains. We don’t always know what to say when someone is depressed. We’re thrown for a loop when someone we know commits suicide. Many of us still don’t think about mental illnesses as diseases of the brain that can be both effectively treated and managed with medications and therapy. Mental Health Awareness Month is a time when we think about all of these things, but there’s so much more.

God did not create you to be a machine that never stops. During Mental Health Awareness Month you are called to slow down, to focus upon wellness, to explore new ways to live in challenging times, and to break free from the tyranny of rules.

Jesus once met a man who was sitting beside the pool at Bethesda. People came to the pool because they were lame, blind, paralyzed, and unwell in other ways. The pool at Bethesda was almost always a crowded place where people sometimes pushed others out of the way, so that they could receive the healing they craved. And, when Jesus sees the man sitting beside the pool, he asks him: “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6) And we might immediately say, “Well, of course he wants to get well! That’s why he’s sitting at the edge of the pool at Bethesda!” But, let’s think about this question (and this story from the Bible) in the light of Mental Health Awareness Month.

This is a story that reminds us, even in dark and hopeless times, God wants us to be well. Notice it was Jesus who reached out to the man. The man didn’t reach out to Jesus. This is a clear indication that God not only sees your needs, but wants you to be well.

But there are some obstacles to wellness in this story.

The pool at Bethesda was a place that was crowded with people with all sorts of different needs, and it was a place where people pushed others out of the way to have their own needs met first. Have you ever felt like you were being pushed out of the way when you needed some help? Have you been led to believe that other people’s needs are always a bit more important than your own? We recall that that’s not true in Mental Health Awareness Month. Your needs and concerns are as important as the needs and concerns of others. God wants you to be well; and, sometimes, that means it’s OK to take care of yourself first. Aren’t you told to put an oxygen mask on your own face before you try to help others when you are flying in an airplane? It’s OK for you to look at your own needs and get the help you need instead of always looking at the needs and concerns of others as being somehow more important. You are important to God. You need to be important to yourself, too.

The pool at Bethesda was also a place of many rules. There were rules about who was allowed to get into the water, and there were rules about who was not allowed to climb into the water. There were rules about what you were allowed to do on the Sabbath, and there were rules about what you were not allowed to do on the Sabbath. And, when Jesus told the man who was sitting beside the pool at Bethesda to take up his mat and walk, Jesus was telling the man that it’s OK to break the rules.

What kind of rules to YOU have? That’s something else to think about during Mental Health Awareness Month.

Do you believe that the needs of other people are always more important than your own needs (this is especially important for those who are caregivers and for those who work in caring professions)? Do you believe that you shouldn’t tell people how you feel because it might make you look weak and unable to cope? Here’s one for the men…. Have you been taught that “real men” don’t share their feelings because they are big, tough people who go into the world to growl and conquer? How would you respond if a friend told you that he/she is depressed, or suicidal? Would you say something like, “It’s really not that bad”? Would you say something like, “You just need to be more positive”? Would you listen carefully to what’s being said and allow the person to be both honest and authentic? Would you try to help the person find needed support and assistance?

Jesus once asked the man who was sitting beside the pool at Bethesda, “Do you want to get well?” Saying, “Yes!” to that question is the first big step you can take during Mental Health Awareness Month. Don’t be afraid to be break the rules, and to pick up your mat and walk. You deserve to have peace and happiness in life. God’s hand is reaching out to you, right now, and you are NOT alone. Be authentic. Ask for what you need. The light at the end of the tunnel as NOT been turned off. God will carry you to better days (sometimes with the help of people who are around you). You will discover wellness again. You will, one day, be able to look at the world with a smile again. “Do you want to get well?” If you are struggling, right now, today is the day to take a little step. Break the rules! Pick up your mat and walk. Ask for what you need and trust that God is going to provide it.

Soul Business

I will be celebrating the 34th anniversary of my ordination on June 11th. I was a Chemical Engineer before I went to seminary, and I served as a church organist for sixteen years. I worked in the rather cut-and-dry world of industry where bottom lines and annual reports dramatically shaped decisions and where mistakes were sometimes unforgiveable. But, in the course of my years, I’ve also met people, both living and dead, who shaped the ways that I think about life and especially the ways that I think about ministry.

My Bishop once warned me that I need to be careful to avoid allowing holy things to become ordinary, and I remember that every time I preside at a worship service. Martin Luther used to tremble when he held the chalice during Holy Communion because he remembered that the chalice is a Cup that contains the very blood of Christ that brings us the forgiveness of sins. Father Joel Nafuma, an Episcopal priest, taught me that strong and healthy ministries are built upon the effective sharing and utilization of spiritual gifts, not just upon finding people to do things that need to be done around the church. Jesus has taught me that life is filled with an abundance of holy moments when God connects with ordinary people, and that the life-bringing mission of the Church will always spring from the command of Jesus to “get out there and make disciples” in new and relevant ways.

Those of us who remain connected to the Church need to remember that we are in the Soul Business. I never really know how God will use the words that I preach, but I trust that God is at work every time I step into the pulpit. Sunday School teachers and those who work together to make Vacation Bible School possible don’t always know how God is going to use the seeds that they plant when little children gather to hear that they are loved by a God they might not even know. Have you ever considered the fact that there are people standing beside you in worship who need you to be there because they’re not able to sing the word “Alleluia” because of something that’s happening in their lives that you don’t understand? We are in the Soul Business when we welcome people and embrace them during these challenging times. We are in the Soul Business when we listen to each other and when we do something as simple as prepare a meal for someone who is homebound. We’re in the Soul Business when we worship and gather around the Table of the Lord where the Risen Jesus comes to us in a Holy Meal. And, yes. We are in the Soul Business every time we help people discover and celebrate their spiritual gifts, and enable them to find ways to use their gifts and talents in life-giving and personally-fulfilling ways to glorify God.

We sometimes forget that we are in the Soul Business. It’s easy to hurry up and “get down to business” without taking some time to pray before a meeting. It’s sometimes easy for the people, who volunteer to welcome folks when they come to worship with a smile, to forget that they may be offering the only smile that a person has seen in a week. It’s sometimes easy to forget that doing something as simple as lighting the candles on an altar, turning the lights on, or preparing an altar for a worship service allows other people to pause for a time of prayer before the service begins. It’s easy for the people who assist in worship to forget that every time a lesson is read during a worship service the Word of God is being spoken to God’s people. It’s easy to forget that every time wine is poured during Holy Communion the forgiveness of God is extended and received by those who have gathered.

I, sometimes, get tired. You, sometimes, get tired. We all have times when we don’t want to commit to doing one more thing because we are busy. It’s easy to reduce church budgets to a set of line items that can be trimmed and reduced with little thought about the effects that less funding will have upon life-giving ministries. And yet, Jesus’ call to each and every one of us is still one that is being extended today. We are called by our Lord to offer that friendly smile and welcome people who come to worship. We are called to take time out of our busy lives to visit the sick, to prepare meals for the homebound and to extend our compassion by doing things as simple as offering our care and support during a visit to a funeral home. We are called by the Holy Spirit to be a Church that keeps its eyes focused upon mission, upon new ways to share the message of God’s love, upon the fact that young people still need to hear the story of Jesus from the lips of Sunday School teachers and still need to hear about the love of Jesus at Vacation Bible School, and upon the fact that we have been called into the life-changing business of touching souls by Jesus Christ. Holy moments occur when we pray and study the Bible together. God stirs our hearts when we envision ministry as being about far more than bottom lines and quarterly reports. The Holy Spirit propels the Church toward an exciting future, even in these quickly changing times, as we keep our eyes upon God’s plan for our lives, for our communities, for our nation, and even for our world.

We must never forget that we are in the Soul Business. The ministry that we do together can touch and shape the lives of people in ways that nothing else can. And when we gather in prayer, in worship, in times of learning, and in times that we devote to caring for others, we must continue to remember that we are doing God’s work with our own hands because the things that we are doing bear testimony to our faith and bring God’s love into the world.

Something New!

Children of all ages have been drawn into the world of electronics. I believe that this offers a wonderful opportunity for us, as people of faith, to connect with young people in a time when fewer and fewer families are attending local churches.

You will find a new tab, entitled “Sketch and Color Bible Stories” at the top of this page. “Sketch and Color Bible Stories” is an engaging way for children of all ages to hear and to learn basic Bible stories.

In each episode I will tell a familiar story from the Bible while a picture is being drawn. But this is more than just another storytelling podcast! There is music, special sound effects and even a picture for your child(ren) to color. The picture, also, provides a wonderful opportunity for parents and adults to get involved by asking the child(ren) to tell them the story that they have just heard while pointing to different parts of the picture.

Please be patient…. This is an exciting adventure for me; but, as you can imagine, the videos take a good bit of time to produce. I will let you know when new episodes are available, right here, on my blog’s homepage; or you can subscribe to the “Sketch and Color Bible Stories” YouTube channel, so that you know when additional stories are released, too.

Streams in the Desert – Part 4

Where do you find yourself in your journey of faith these days? Are you hopeful and filled with faith, or do you find yourself sinking into despair? Are you trusting that God has a long history of carrying people through times like these, or have you begun to wonder if someone has extinguished the light at the end of the tunnel?

Here is the fourth video in the “Streams in the Desert” series which has been created to remind you that God promises to provide what you need as you journey through life. Why not take some time today to worship and reflect, to pray, to look toward God for strength and peace, and to remember that God continues to lift you up?

Streams in the Desert – Part 3

Why not set aside about 20 minutes this evening to simply stop, get more centered, reflect and pray? Today, we are inviting you to remember that God is near to you during these strange and challenging times. Here’s the third video in our Lenten Series entitled: “Streams in the Desert.”

Streams in the Desert – Part 2

Why not set aside about 20 minutes this evening to simply stop, get more centered, reflect and pray? Today, we are inviting you to remember that God listens to you during these strange and challenging times. Here’s the second video in our Lenten Series entitled: “Streams in the Desert.”

Streams in the Desert – Part 1

Why not set aside about 20 minutes this evening to simply stop, get more centered, reflect and pray? Today, we are inviting you to remember that God sustains you during these strange and challenging times. Here’s a link to the first video in our Lenten Series entitled: “Streams in the Desert.”

Naming Our Anger

We are traveling through an uncomfortable time right now.

We are approaching the end of the second year of our struggle to make sense of the coronavirus and we are both weary and frazzled. The 2020’s have been punctuated by groups of people who are protesting in our streets and who are even protesting around State capital buildings and entering the legislative chambers with guns. 2020’s election cycle was a difficult one that separated friends and even family members into enemy camps. Many people have lost their jobs and are facing the possibility of losing their homes. Restaurant and other business owners are watching their hopes and dreams evaporate before their eyes. Major issues like racism and immigration, that have not been addressed in helpful ways for many years, are on the table and need to be discussed as we prepare to enter 2022. And now, we are being told that we should set aside our plans to celebrate the Holidays and continue to wear masks in public places again.

Many people are angry these days. We hear frightening stories about people being thrown to the ground and having limbs broken because they asked another person to wear a mask. I hear automobile horns blowing every time I fail to stomp on the accelerator as soon as the traffic light turns green. I watched a bus driver blow the horn of the bus, pound on the steering wheel and scream at the driver of a hearse who would not allow the bus to enter a funeral procession last week. People are giving each other “the finger.” Little disagreements are turning into relationship-changing arguments. We have stopped even trying to interpret the actions of other people in the best possible way as we are told to do in the Ten Commandments. Many of us are angry, but the challenge I see is that many of us are walking around stomping-mad these days unable to even identify what is really making us angry.

The Bible teaches us that naming things is important.

Most parents talk for many months about what they are going to name their baby when it is born. Think about what happens when somebody in a group calls out your name. Do you turn to see who is trying to get your attention? The name of God was lost in the Jewish tradition because God’s name was never spoken because the Jewish leaders believed that, when you named something else, you were able to capture its very essence and nature. The writers of the Bible named gods, like Baal and Beelzebub, but we don’t know how to properly pronounce God’s name in modern times; because, for thousands of years, the Jewish leaders simply said or sang, “G-d” or “the Lord” when they came to the name of God while reading scripture.

Why is unnamed anger dangerous?

We, sometimes, do unusual things when we don’t take the time to clearly identify things that are making us angry. Think about a person who is frustrated at work coming home and kicking the dog. Think about a person who becomes unemployed because of an unseen virus suddenly becoming their own worst critic. Think about someone who cannot pay the bills and make ends meet no matter how many hours he/she works honking his/her automobile’s horn the instant a traffic light turns green. Have you been drinking more alcohol in the last few months? Have you ended relationships with other people because of arguments that got out of control? Have you become more critical of other people and allowed little things to become bigger than they need to be? Do you find yourself talking about other people behind their backs? Have you been screaming at people and even pounding on the steering wheel inside your vehicle? How many people have you “unfriended” because you disagree with what they post on social media? Are the muscles in your neck and shoulders tight? Are you having trouble sleeping because you cannot stop thinking? Our unnamed anger reveals itself in different ways; and, when we do not understand that, we sometimes find ourselves doing things that we cannot rationally explain.

How can naming our anger give us power over it?

Imagine how your life could change if you simply stopped and realized that you are angry because of continuing struggles at work and that your anger has absolutely nothing to do with the little dog, with a wagging tail, that jumps on you because it’s excited to see you. Imagine how your life could be different if you admitted that you are angry because you can’t make ends meet, no matter how many hours you spend at work, instead of honking the horn on your automobile at someone that you don’t even know. Imagine how your life would improve if, instead of allowing little things to become big things that can destroy relationships with other people, you admitted that you are angry because your life is being changed by a virus that you can’t even see? Are you angry because you are being asked to wear a mask in public, or are you angry about something else? Are you pounding on the steering wheel of your car because you are angry at an elderly person who crosses the street too slowly, or is something else lighting your fire? I believe that one of the most important things we can do, right now, is simply stop and identify what is making us angry and frustrated; because, until we take the time to stop and do that, we will continue to vent and release our wrath upon people who have little to do with what is driving the anger and frustration that’s inside of us.

It is, also, helpful to listen to other people when they name their anger, too.

We need to listen to others in challenging times; because, when we allow others to name their anger, we can understand their actions and behavior in a different way. We need to listen to people who are naming their anger when they speak, and who are expressing their anger when they protest after a routine traffic stop turns into an unnecessary, deadly encounter because people have different skin colors. We need to listen to people who are finding it increasingly difficult to simply survive and who are afraid that our country is moving in a direction that could make their lives even more difficult. We need to listen to the anger that people are expressing because they have lost their jobs and because they are afraid that they are going to lose everything that they have saved – including their homes. We need to listen to the anger of people who are financially struggling, today, because they cannot afford to live and pay off their student loans at the same time. We need to listen to people who are angry because they need to choose between buying medicines that they need, and food or fuel to heat their homes. We need to listen to people who are angry because they’re afraid that they will be driven into bankruptcy if they get sick and need to go to a hospital because they do not have health insurance. We need to listen to people who are angry because they can’t wear a mask in public because of health challenges and who are frustrated because people continue to criticize their behavior because it has become nearly impossible to separate people who are not wearing masks because of health challenges from people who refuse to wear a mask for other reasons.

I want to challenge you to take some time to identify and to name your anger as we travel through these challenging times and as we try to better understand why we are doing what we are doing.

We have power over things that are happening in our lives when we name them. We are far less likely to direct unnamed anger at other people when we take time to think about the things that are driving our anger and that are influencing the ways that we act. Unnamed anger can be a destructive menace in our lives that can turn us into stirred-up bulls thrashing around in a china shop. Unnamed anger is not good for our families and our relationships. Unnamed anger is not good for our country, for our churches, or for our world. But, when we name our anger, we can gain control of it, and understand ourselves and other people in new ways. And, when we find ourselves doing that, we will discover that we are traveling on a helpful and healthy path into the future.