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.”

Our New Normal

I suspect that you already know that many things are changing.

Most of us, at least in America, have lived our entire lives believing that the right combination of science and good medical care can protect us from viral and bacterial infections. Many of us have not regularly washed or disinfected our hands, and many of us haven’t worn a mask that covers both our nose and mouth at any other point in our lives. We have greeted people by shaking hands and hugging them. We have gathered in tightly packed spaces with few concerns about safety. Those who attend worship have been encouraged to sing loudly and to praise the Lord with joyful hearts and then kneel beside each other to receive Bread and Wine during Holy Communion. We have been encouraged to believe that gun violence only affects other people. We have believed that racism was addressed during the Civil Rights protests in the past and that it is no longer a part of American culture. We have, also, trusted in the fact that our Democratic Republic, itself, will survive the test of time.

The Bible is filled with stories about a God who carries people through times like these.

God delivered people from slavery during the Exodus and provided manna (which means: What is this stuff?) in the Wilderness. God carried the remnant of Israel through the difficult years after the Assyrian invasion and carried the remnant of Judah through a time when the place where people worshiped God was destroyed and when faithful people were dragged into captivity in Babylon. The Bible speaks about God as a God who provides streams in the desert and it speaks about Jesus as the source of “Living Water” that never fails. The Bible bears witness to a God who remains stable, secure, rock-solid and true no matter what you face in life as an individual or even as an American citizen in 2021. Jesus even promises to raise you up strong, healthy and recreated after life and death have done their worst.

We are tempted to look backwards and to idealize a past that never really existed when we face times of change.

We want to relive the days before the pandemic and want our “new normal” to be the same as our “old normal.” We want to go out in public spaces without wearing masks. We want to shake hands and hug each other. We do not want to even think about protecting ourselves from something that we can’t see anymore. We want the Church to be what it was 50 years ago. We want people to stop talking about racism and poverty and violence in America. We want to know again that, even though America isn’t perfect, America will prevail as a nation. Change is inevitable. We don’t like it. We want the familiar.

What would you say if I told you that the “old normal” is never coming back and that you need to open your hands, release what’s familiar, and trust God to give you something new and exciting?

Perhaps, during these times when people are intensely focused upon personal freedom and rugged individuality, God is challenging you to think more deeply about community and what it means to care about others? Perhaps, God is challenging you to listen more carefully to the voices of those who are lifting up the issues of racism, poverty and violence in America, and to be a part of positive change? Perhaps, God is challenging you to think about the fact that, in the midst of a global pandemic, we can’t effectively address the challenge of variants and viral spread by focusing only upon what’s happening in the United States? Maybe God wants you to more readily embrace change at your church, so that your church can move into a stronger and healthier future during a time when the rest of the world is moving on? Maybe God is challenging America and Americans to think about what it truly means to be a nation that boldly proclaims that it is a place of liberty and justice for all?

Faith is the bridge between where I am and the place where God is taking me; and, trusting in that fact, I find the courage to live boldly and faithfully. God journeys with me in uncertain times and Jesus has promised to walk beside me. Faith reminds me that God is moving me toward something better than what I have right now – even as I face times of change and uncertainty that I would like to avoid at all costs. I hope you can say that, too.

May God bless you and those that you love in the coming week. May you have a renewed sense of God’s presence in these changing times. And may the Holy Spirit fill your heart with faith and embolden you as we continue to journey, together, from where we are right now to where God wants us to be.

Little Prayers in Big Times

Have you noticed that everything seems to be really big these days?

COVID-19 moved onto center stage 18 months ago, and it’s almost as if the pandemic has swallowed up everything else in our lives. We have witnessed the abrupt end of a 20-year-long war in Afghanistan that was destined to end badly from the very start. We are hearing about uncontrollable fires burning in the Western United States. We are hearing about Hurricane Ida leaving a trail of destruction behind it. We witnessed an angry mob taking over our Capitol building on January 6th; and now, we are hearing threats about even worse things to come.

There is an old saying (actually, an old curse) that reads: “May you live in interesting times.”

Think about people who lived through the Worlds Wars. Think about people who lived during the American Civil War when people in the United States became so deeply divided that they killed each other. Life was difficult in the time of Jesus. Roman soldiers (think “a foreign army”) had taken over the country. Words of insurrection and rebellion were being quietly whispered behind locked doors and in the streets. People were being told how to live their lives by religious authorities. People who broke Roman laws were crucified.

And yet, even during a time when things around Him were so big, Jesus continued to move around among the people and Jesus continued His ministry, didn’t He? In Mark 7:25, a woman came to Jesus because her daughter was possessed by a demon – even while words of insurrection and rebellion were being whispered all around her. In Mark 7:32, a group of people brought a man who could not hear to Jesus – during a foreign occupation.

Are you still praying for yourself and for people that you know and love in the midst of all of the big things that are happening around you, right now? Maybe you know someone who is fighting cancer or struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe you are trying to stay sober or keep away from addicting drugs. Maybe your boss has turned into a tyrant and you are thinking about quitting your job, but are afraid that you might not be able to find another one. Maybe you are struggling with loneliness. Maybe you are afraid to send your kid(s) back to school. Maybe you are a frontline healthcare worker who is weary, right now, and who is tired of watching so many people die. Maybe you are discovering that your “Golden Years” are not really as golden as you thought they would be.

I want to encourage you to pray this week and to remember that the prayers you offer are as important to Jesus as they are to you. I want to encourage you to lift your voice, to pour out your heart, and to speak what’s deep inside of you trusting that God hears you and wants to touch you and those that you love with healing power. Perhaps, in the midst of challenging times, it would be helpful to begin each new day by sitting quietly in a chair or by kneeling, by taking a deep breath and by saying, “How good, Lord, to be here.” (Mark 9:5) And, after you do that, simply stop and rest and know that Jesus is near. Feel the peace.

You see, it’s not about who you are or about whether you believe the right things about God. It’s not about whether you somehow deserve to be heard by God in a time when everything else around you seems to be so big. Jesus listened to a Gentile woman as she prayed for her daughter during challenging times, and Jesus listens to you when you pray for people that you know and love. Jesus listened to a group of people who prayed that He would heal their deaf friend during a time of big disruptions and chaotic change, and Jesus is listening to you as you bring what concerns you before Him in prayer.

Prayer works because Jesus loves you.

Prayer works because, even as you live your life in a world where everything seems to be so big, Jesus is listening to your voice and continues to invite you to lift whatever’s in your heart and on your mind before Him, right now.

Verbal Emission Standards

I began my career as a Chemical Engineer. I helped to design pilot plants – small versions of larger chemical plants that were going to be built in the future. I worked with computer programs that simulated what would happen as chemicals traveled through the plant, so that I would know what kind of products and emissions were going to be produced. And this was important to me because I was interested in protecting the environment.

I first became interested in protecting the environment as a child. I remember sitting at the McDonald’s in Baden, Pennsylvania and watching orange dust from the steel mill across the river settle onto our car as I ate my cheeseburger. The hillside behind the lead smelter where I worked was totally devoid of vegetation because of the poisonous emissions that had been released by the plant.

But now, being environmentally conscious is all the rage, isn’t it? We are concerned about what comes out of the tailpipes of our cars and burning coal has become taboo. We are supposed to buy energy-efficient lightbulbs and set blue cans filled with recyclables at the end of our driveways each week. Scientists have become increasingly concerned about greenhouse gases as rivers that supply drinkable water to tens of millions of people fall to record lows. We even send cleanup crews out to pick up trash along highways because some people just roll down their window and throw trash from the moving car.

Jesus was, also, concerned about emission standards. He once said, “There is nothing outside of you that by going inside will defile. It’s the things that come out of you that can defile.” It’s not the types of food that you eat or the things that you decide to drink that can make you unclean in the eyes of God. What makes you unclean are the things that come out of your heart and that, eventually, come out of your mouth: Your verbal emissions.

We are living in strange times, aren’t we? People are on edge, and little things are suddenly becoming big things. A lot of people don’t care about how they are using their words, and social media has made it even worse because it’s easy to type words onto the screen of an electronic device that you would never speak to someone face-to-face. Political debates are destroying friendships, are dividing churches and are even tearing our families apart. The space between “being on my side” and “being on your side” has become, for many of us, a nearly impossible chasm to cross.

Today, as a pastor, I’m telling you that it needs to stop.

We need to work together, as God’s people, so that the way that people are using their words these days doesn’t become normalized and an acceptable part of our society. We need to stop defining ourselves only in terms of “us” and “them” and believing that verbally attacking “them” (whoever “them” may be) is OK. As Jesus people, we need to be drawn back to the base of the Cross where Jesus calls us to confess whatever part we have played in creating the divisions around us; and then, we need to repent and change course. As Jesus people, we need to hear God’s call to look for the good in each other, to encourage and build each other up, to search for what we still have in common when we disagree, and to do our best to speak words of truth to each other in loving ways.

I guess that there is still a Chemical Engineer inside of me. But now, my calling as a pastor is to speak as clearly about what comes out of our hearts and out of our mouths as I used to speak about what escapes from a chemical plant’s smokestacks.

Jesus once said, “There is nothing outside of you that by going inside of you can defile.” St. James once wrote, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak. And remember: If you think that you are religious and do not bridle your tongue, you are just deceiving your heart and your religion is worthless.

Let’s think about those words as we move through the coming week; and let’s, also, allow those words to lead and guide us as we live and interact with each other in these strange and unusual times.

Our Stories and Our Faith

Our life together, as Jesus people, is built around stories. We gather on Christmas Eve to remember God as Immanuel – God with us in every situation and circumstance of life. We celebrate Easter by listening to a wonderful story about Jesus being raised from the dead; and, on that day, we remember that, even after life and death have done their worst, God is going to raise us up new and whole. Perhaps, you remember a well-known story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people with only five barley loaves and two little fish. Maybe you remember the story of Noah’s ark. Our life together is built around stories.

I have been drawn into the story of the Exodus many times during the pandemic that has so dramatically reshaped our lives. I came to appreciate Moses more deeply as I came to see him as a man who didn’t think that he had the ability to lead God’s people into the future. I came to understand the challenges that the Israelites faced as I listened to people calling me to move in many different directions during a time when I am not always sure what’s best. God has called me to come to Mount Sinai, where I have removed my shoes and spent time in the presence of the Lord in times of daily prayer and devotion. I have even come to understand what it was like when the Israelites looked back and saw the Red Sea closing behind them. There was a sense that God was closing a chapter in their lives and that the only option was to move into an unknown future.

The story of the Exodus bears witness to God’s ability to lead us into an unknown future that is good; and, this week, I would like to encourage you to reflect upon that story. The Church still has many unanswered questions, doesn’t it? How can we continue to be a community of Jesus people when some are worshiping inside our buildings and others are worshiping at home? How can we continue to share the message of Jesus with young people during a time when parents are not sure that it is safe to bring their children back to Sunday School? How can we continue to be a community of Jesus people when we are being called into deep and destructive divisions? How can we continue to move forward with faith during a time when many things we have trusted in the past are changing or fading away? Here are some things to think about:

  • The story of the Exodus reminds us that, in times when we are afraid and uncertain, one of the first things we want to do is go back to a time and place in the past when we felt safe. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the melons, cucumbers, leeks, onions and garlic.” (Numbers 11:5) I remember days when we needed to put extra chairs in the aisles during worship, so that everyone could sit down. I remember days when my Dad told me, “If you are too sick to go to church, you are too sick to do anything else today” and he meant it. But times are changing. Today, only about 16% of Americans regularly attend in-person worship. What does that mean to us as a community of Jesus people? What can we learn about ourselves as we think about the Israelites creating an idealized picture of a past that they wanted to recapture even while God was leading them into the future?
  • The story of the Exodus also reminds us that God is a God who provides manna in the Wilderness (Exodus 16:13-14). The Hebrew word “manna” means: “What is this stuff?” We don’t always fully understand what God is providing as we journey into a new future. Some folks asked: “What is Zoom?” last year. I never imagined being able to create a Christmas and Easter service using DaVinci Resolve 17. We have been learning how to use YouTube Live. We have been learning how to get a copy of our weekly bulletin into people’s hands by creating a link on our church’s webpage. Sermons that have been preached at Christ’s Lutheran Church are now being heard in 36 countries. We have been using new camera equipment to enable people in California, Texas, New York, South Carolina and even Germany to join us in worship. 2021 is a year when we all need to be asking: “What is this stuff?” What tools and what opportunities is God providing, so that we can move from where we are right now to where God wants us to be? “What is this stuff?” that God is providing to help us to share the message of Jesus with others?
  • And lastly, the story of the Exodus reminds us that leading God’s people into their unknown future is not an easy task, and that those who are trying their best to lead the Church during these strange times need people to come alongside of them as they stand on the front line (Exodus 17:10-12). I often speak about leading the Church through these difficult days as drinking from a firehose. There are few decisions that are easy. People who serve us as bishops, as pastors, as Church Council members and as leaders of every sort have never done this before. Just picture Moses standing with his arms in the air knowing that God’s people win as long as he holds his hands high in the air and that they falter when his arms begin to drop. “How long can I keep doing this?” he surely asked himself. And we read that Moses did his best even when he was weary. But the story of the Exodus tells us that the battle was won after Aaron and Hur got a stone, so that Moses could sit down. And then, Aaron and Hur came alongside of Moses and physically held his weary arms in the air and the day was saved. What a story!

Our life together, as Jesus people, continues to be built around stories; and, this week, I want to encourage you to think about the story of the Exodus. How can we work together to live into the future that God is setting before us during a time when many of us want to return to our idealized picture of a past that no longer exists? How can we work together and move forward in our lives and ministry during a time when we are continuing to ask, “What is this stuff?” as we see what God is providing? And how can we continue to live well with each other and faithfully support those who are trying their best to lead us through a time that none of us could have ever imagined?

Vision and Mission

Churches and non-profits of every kind exist to fulfill their mission.

A food bank’s mission is to get groceries into the hands of hungry people. The mission of a women’s shelter is to provide a place of refuge for women who want to escape their abusive partners and to help those women get a fresh start. Some non-profits focus upon helping people who are homeless or upon preparing meals for people who are no longer able to cook. Jesus created the Church to be a community that spreads the good news of God’s love and to be a community that makes disciples.

A lot has happened in the last year.

We have not been able to gather in groups, and we have needed to stop doing things that we once considered routine. Churches locked their doors and worshiped online. We have all embraced technology in new ways. Zoom became more than what happens when you push your automobile’s gas pedal to the floor. Social media has become rather antisocial. We have become a bit harsh with each other as we’ve grown weary, and we have become people who are more bothered by little inconveniences. We are tired. We’re not sure that we want to make even small commitments. We are grieving because some of the things that we once considered important in our lives have changed, or even disappeared. And, of course, we are all asking, “What’s next?” Will things that we have enjoyed return? Will our churches, non-profits and other organizations survive? What can we do to move into a brighter future? Where do we need to focus our energy?

Churches and non-profits of every kind exist to fulfill their mission, and churches and non-profits that do not claim and live into their mission are going to disappear.

Think about a local food bank that stops distributing food. Think about a women’s shelter that stops providing a place of refuge for abused women. Think about a church that is so concerned about getting people to come back into a building (in a nation where only about 16% of adults regularly attend worship) that it loses sight of the fact that it can spread the good news of God’s love and make disciples using new and exciting technology. These are times when churches and non-profits of every kind need to be focused upon why they exist. These are times when churches and non-profits need to understand and articulate their mission clearly, and when churches and non-profits need to be focused upon what they have to offer and upon what they have been created by God to do.

The Bible says that people perish when there is a lack of vision (Proverbs 29:18). Vision gives birth to mission. Mission gives birth to passion. Passion gives birth to excitement and energy. Excitement and energy give birth to growth and vitality. Growth and vitality can create even more expansive understandings of an organization’s vision and mission, which can lead to even more excitement and energy and growth and vitality.

Churches and non-profits of every kind exist to fulfill their mission, and churches and non-profits that do not claim and live into their mission are going to disappear.

And, with that in your mind, I want to conclude by asking: “If you belong to a church or if you choose to participate in the life of any non-profit organization, how would you define your group’s mission?” “What is God calling you to do?” “What value are you bringing into the lives of those you serve?” These are critical questions we need to ask as we continue to emerge from these challenging times and as we prepare to move forward with hope, direction and focus in these quickly changing days.