Posted tagged ‘Sunday worship’

Sermon Feedback…Unplanned!

August 14, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                   August 14, 2019

                              

I spoke to the Simla Saints last Sunday. Simla, Colorado is a sleepy-eyed town of a few hundred folk about 45 minutes east of Colorado Springs. First Baptist Church of Simla is composed of about 20 good natured souls of various ages between 1 and 92 (although the married 92 year olds moved to be with their daughter in a different town too far away). 

They are a congregation that enjoys laughter, potlucks, and after-service cookies.

And most of the time I enjoy being with them. Last Sunday was enjoyable…and then they started asking questions about the sermon!

I spoke about Mary and Martha after the death of their brother, Lazarus. Both sisters made the same statement to Jesus, but I suggested that their different personalities might have  caused their statements to have different meanings to Jesus. I talked about Martha’s attention to detail and getting the work done, and Mary’s interest in sitting and listening to Jesus.

They were with me! We traveled the sermon journey together, punctuated with laughter and an occasional nodding of the head (with eyes still open).

And then we went to talking about prayer concerns…kinda’!

After a couple of prayer concerns were mentioned one of the women said, “I’ve got a question.” She was looking at me. “It says that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters a couple of times. So why did he wait to go to Bethany?”

“Well, I think he…ahhh…well….ahhh…”

A “Martha” speaks up. “And Pastor Bill, if Martha didn’t do the work how was it going to get done? Fixing a dinner for a group was a lot of work. They didn’t have microwaves back in those days.” I nodded my head in agreement, hoping that she had put a period on the end of her point.

“Good point!”

From the right side of the sanctuary…”And Mary didn’t seem to be that concerned about how the food was going to get on the table. Seems a little irresponsible to me!”

I begin to come to Mary’s defense. “But Mary was focused on Jesus. It seems that she was often sitting at the feet of Jesus.”

Back at me! “And expecting her sister to do all the work!”

“Well…ahhh…I….ahhh….”

“And Lazarus is just sitting there, also. He’s not helping.”

“Well, he did just rise from the dead,” I suggest.

“…and isn’t doing anything! He’s had a four day nap, for crying out loud!”

“Well…ahhh…”

“I’ve got another question,” said the woman who had initiated this unplanned sermon feedback session. “Does Martha believe Jesus can change things, even though her brother has already died?”

“That’s a great question!” 

When a pastor is at a loss as to how to answer a question, affirming the greatness of an asked question is a good go-to.

Back to the “Martha”. “I think Martha gets a bad rap here and Mary seems to be exalted.”

“Great point!”

The unplanned sermon feedback session goes for another five minutes. It’s filled with me saying profound things like, “Well” and “Ahhh” and “Hmmm”.

And then, thankfully, we get back to the clarity of prayer concerns, where there is no debate. The congregation has enjoyed the unplanned. I have a hunch they enjoyed how they made me stammer and look clueless most of all. Maybe next time I’ll ask for the prayer concerns to be mentioned BEFORE the sermon.

The Following of Influencers

April 7, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                  April 7, 2019

                              

More than 24 million people follow Huda Kattan on Instagram, and she has 2.2 million subscribers on YouTube. Ever since Kim Kardashian wore a series of false eyelashes that Kattan has created, her cosmetics products have attracted a crowd. 

She is one of the new breed of social media marketing people called “influencers.” An influencer does just that! Influences the opinions and decisions of other people who follow them.

Some influencers are compensated by companies whose products they promote. For example, if an influencer takes a selfie of himself eating an Egg McMuffin he may be compensated in some way by McDonald’s.

Why? Because his followers model their behavior after him. Egg McMuffins may go up a hundred thousand in sales the day after he posts a picture of him biting into one.

It is why athletic footwear companies pay top-level athletes boatloads of money to wear their brand. What did Air Jordan mean before it became the name of a Nike shoe? Suddenly millions of athletes began lacing up Air Jordans because of Michael Jordan and the subtle idea that they would be skying through the air like him. 

Influence is not new term. Kids have been told to stay away from so-and-so because he’s a bad influence. In other words, when a young boy hung around with him he was prone to making stupid decisions. Parents, of course, would also talk about who might be a good influence on their child! 

Coming from a long career as a church pastor, I always felt the tension in people’s lives over who and what influences them the most. There were those who were passionate about Jesus, sought the leading…the influencing, if you will…of the Holy Spirit, and the whisper of God. And then there were those who fluctuated- on fire for the Lord one week and as ho-hum as generic peanut butter the next. Finally, there were those who it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out were not being influenced by Jesus much at all. 

These days it seems that Sunday church attendance fluctuates according to what time the Denver Bronco’s game kicks off, or how nice the weather is outside, or other Sunday commitments like youth soccer, baseball, volleyball, basketball, or lacrosse.

In other words, “church” has decreasing influence on people’s lives. Each year in the United States between 6,000 and 10,000 churches now close. They’ve become irrelevant in the eyes of much of the populace. Like Amazon has made the locally-owned book store a memory of the past, change has caused many of our places of worship to close up shop.

And yet there’s hope!

Just as people are influenced by the images of Huda Kattan fake eyelashes, the symbols and images of the Christian faith are still strong influencers. The Cross of Christ will always be powerful and meaningful. The image of an empty tomb conveys the possibilities of life in the midst of darkness and death. A broken piece of bread continues to influence me to ponder and think about my identity in Christ.

Granted the influencers of the Christian faith are not fluff and cosmetic, which seem to attract a certain part of our population, but they are deeply significant and rooted in truth.

“Church World” has been rocked in recent times by scandals, pastors who have been worshipped more than Jesus himself, and identifying with the voice of politics as opposed to the politics of Jesus. There are a growing number of people who now identity the church as one of those “bad influences.”

Perhaps there will be a renewal on the horizon of some influences that will lead hurting people back to the source of hope and darkened minds back to the Light! If fake eyelashes can influence millions of people, could a new vision from God influence the multitudes of people whose eyes are weary from the search for something meaningful and enduring?

What I Like About Church

March 18, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                         March 18, 2019

                                 

I admit that it’s ingrained in me. Sunday mornings have always meant one word: Church! And since our family attended Central Baptist Church in Winchester, Kentucky, it meant Sunday morning and Sunday evening. 

I was always a bit jealous of the kids at the Methodist church across the street from Central Baptist. They didn’t have Sunday evening services and, therefore, got to stay home and watch “Walt Disney” on TV. For my two siblings and me, our exposure to Walt Disney had to happen at Leed’s Theatre in downtown Winchester. That’s where we discovered “Old Yeller” and “Big Red”, not on TV!

But I liked church! It was like a warm blanket on a blizzard night. It felt good and right. 

And now 55 years since Central Baptist, and a career as an American Baptist pastor, I still feel right when I sit in a pew, or a sanctuary chair. It makes me wonder though…why? It’s got to be more than just the mark made by a family tradition. Why do I think about being a part of a worship service when Sunday morning rolls around?

I could get all spiritual on you and say right away that it’s because of the grace of God for such a sinner as me, and the forgiveness of Christ exacted by the shedding of his blood…and that’s true! The foundation for being a life-long church participant IS rooted in the gospel of Christ, but that’s not what gets me out of bed on Sunday morning.

It’s not the lure of donuts and Danish’s either, or weak coffee brewed by someone who’s taste was destroyed by drinking watered-down Maxwell House.

I like church because of the intimacy and the memories of intimacy. Not the youth group hay rides we used to go on…not that kind of intimacy, although the memories of them still bring a smile to my face!

The intimacy I’m thinking of was being able to lean up against my mom or dad’s arm and know that neither or them was going anywhere for the next hour or so. There was a closeness to family in those moments. 

A few weeks ago a picture popped up on my Facebook page from seven years ago. It was from Christmas Day, 2011. I stood in the aisle of the sanctuary with a dear man named Rex Davis. I had my arm around his shoulders and he had his arm around my waist. Rex was around 90 at the time. I like church because of moments like that, when the bond of Christ draws us together in an embrace of deep love and connected humanity. 

I like church because of the moments of revelation. Once again, I need to clarify about that term, because it’s been associated with suspect snake oil salesmen. For me, the moments of revelation come as I sit in silence and ponder, or as a scripture verse is read for the umpteenth time, or as I gaze at a stained glass window. Things get revealed to me about myself, or about the One I’m encountering. I live in a world that is so noisy I’m blasted with false revelations every day. I’m told my life needs certain things- products and services and such. Snake oil now comes in a variety of cultural flavors. In church, true revelation is hinted at if I desire to follow its path.

I like the hope of church and the hope experienced in church. Weary souls stumble through the doors and then a short while later leave rested and reassured. The hurting share their wounds and are carried back to healing. The lonely and broken-hearted are able to be embraced and held in place. A world of trouble is put into perspective by the message of the God who draws near.

I don’t go to church to be impressed by the perfection of the pastor, or the performance of the participants. There’s something that leaves a bad taste in my mouth- like sweet cream gone bad- when church tries to outdo the other places of worship in the same zip code, something fake and foreign to my senses.

And so I go each Sunday, ready to receive and willing to give. I’ve long since stopped using my mom and dad’s arms as a pillow for my head, but I still have others who I know I can lean on, if and when I need them!

The Simla Saints

December 24, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                       December 24, 2018

                                        

Yesterday I gave the morning sermon at First Baptist Church in Simla, Colorado. It was good! Not the sermon, but rather the fellowship of the saints, the Simla Saints. 

The parking lot was not crowded. There is no parking lot!

There was not a greeter at the door. Everyone greets each other just like a family would.

No one had a Starbucks coffee cup in their hand. The nearest Starbucks is 45 minutes away, and the pot of (weak) coffee brews during the service for consumption afterwards.

There is not a screen or a projector..or an organist or pianist. But there is something like a music machine that plays background organ music that the congregation is rarely in rhythm with. The machine plays 3 verses of a hymn that the hymnal has four verses of…or vice-versa.

Simla First Baptist is one block off of the main road through town, but by the time a car leaves the main road it hits dirt. Dirt is cheaper than those highfalutin big city streets that are blacktopped! Simla is a town that does not desire a lot of attention!

Each pew of the sanctuary has a blanket at the end of it. If you’re cold, wrap up! The thermostat is not going to be adjusted when you’ve got a readily accessible blanket right there. One Sunday the batteries had gone dead sometime during the week in the sanctuary thermostat. No one had replacements, so the saints moved closer together, covered themselves with blankets, and we worshipped together in a 40 degree chill. Singing “Breathe on Me, Breath of God” had a visual addition to it that Sunday in front of each singer’s lips.

When I retired from pastoral ministry at the end of 2015 I got a call from the church moderator at Simla, asking if I was available to speak the first Sunday in February? I was so I did! At the end of that February service he came up to me and asked if I was available the next Sunday. I did three Sundays in a row before my friend, Steve Wamberg, spoke a couple of Sundays. Steve and I then started filling in every week, usually in two week rotations. 

Now, almost three years later, Ed Stucky and I handle the bulk of the Sundays, riding out together from “the big city” each Sunday morning.

Simla First Baptist was my second salvation. Jesus was the first! When I retired from ministry, however, I needed a second salvation. I needed for a church, so to speak, to save me from the church. 36 years of ministry had whipped me. I needed a rescue of sorts! Pastors can become disillusioned after a while, a long while. A pastor, who is the messenger of hope for people on a faith journey can come to a point where he/she feels hopeless.

The Simla Saints picked me up. Grace became more important than grandeur, simplicity the norm instead of splendor! 

And so yesterday Carol and I drove out to see the Saints once again. Almost all of them were there…all 16 of us!…ranging in age from nine months to 74. A dear widow lady who runs the family farm lit the advent candles. Two 7th Grade boys took up the offering. The nine month old had been carried down the block from the Methodist Church to her second service of the morning, after being the Christ-child in the Methodist children’s church program. Her brother, now four, had been Jesus the year before. His baby sister was a sorta’ “second coming”!

One mom brought homemade cookies. Two army veterans munched and talked about their service during the Vietnam years. Everyone had a purpose and a place. Everyone had their struggles to share and blessings to trumpet. 

When we got back in the CRV and headed back on the dirt street to the main road I had a sense that I had been used to minister to others…and had been ministered to by the Saints!

I had not only been to church, I had been a part of the church! 

A Creature of Habit

November 27, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                            November 27, 2017

                                  

Perhaps you can identify with what I’m about to write. I am a creature of habit!

My habit-dominated life begins with my wake-up routine. I rise from bed fifteen minutes either side of 6:30. If I’m still in bed at 7:00 Carol knows that I’m either sick or dead. The second hasn’t happened yet so it’s usually the first!

I shower, brush my teeth, shave…the usual morning routines, head downstairs to feast on…yogurt! If I’m not substitute teaching I’m usually out the door by 7:15 headed to my local Starbucks, where I am now sitting on the last stool on the right looking out at Pike’s Peak. If someone is already sitting on that stool I make an adjustment…and sit on the last stool on the left! It is on one of these stools that I peck out my blog each time, sipping Pike Place coffee that has been flavored with cream and two raw sugar packets. The baristas at Starbucks know that I’m there for my coffee with my reusable Starbucks cup, and that I will stay there until I’ve gotten my second free refill with my Starbucks Gold Card.

Coincidentally, the book I finished writing, and am now writing the sequel to, gets created at Library 21C in Colorado Springs from the last chair on the right  at a counter that is looking out towards Pike’s Peak. Go figure!

I drink juice from a plastic cup that looks like it belongs to a first-grader. I wear low-cut white socks to bed that get taken off sometime before I fall asleep. I sleep with my “blankie” that is hovering around forty years old. I like to read for an hour or two at bedtime…underneath my blankie…that covers up my displaced white socks.

When I go to our fitness club I run/walk on the treadmill, do weight training, swim, and then shower in that order. Always…in that order!

By now you’re thinking I’m a bit anal, but if I had the habit of betting I would wager that you’ve got some ingrained habits as well.

Habits bring order and structure. They’re like the side wall of a pool that you know you can grab on to when things seem to be getting a little too hairy!

When I retired from pastoral ministry I suddenly realized that I had the freedom and the choice to go to a worship service on Sunday morning. The first Sunday after retirement, guess what I did? I got up and went to worship at First Baptist Church in Colorado Springs. The next Sunday I got up and went to a Church of Christ that friends of ours belonged to. The habit of worship continued to resonate with me. It was foundational, and continues to be.

Habits, however, need to emerge out of a purpose, a reason. Why is it that I attend Sunday worship? Because of my love for and relationship with Jesus. Why is it that Carol and I hold hands and pray before we share a meal together? Because we are grateful! Why do we contribute to ministries, churches, and other charitable organizations? Because what we have is all God’s to begin with, and we believe that giving a portion of what he has blessed us with is a privilege and an obligation.

Sometimes people adopt habits because their family had the same habits. They, however, never bought into the purpose of the habit. When a crisis happens, or a change occurs that causes them to evaluate what is going on in their lives the habits often get tossed to the side because of their rootlessness.

It seems that I serve a God who is also into the habit of doing certain things that have meaning and purpose. I’m extremely grateful of the fact that he is forgiving, gracious, and loving. That those habits are rooted in his desire for relationships with people. God has good habits!

Perhaps deep within my soul is that yearning to be relationship with him as well, and that yearning has caused some of my spiritual practices to become holy habits.

The Key To the Church…Literally!

May 9, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                         May 8, 2017

                           

I arrived with my friends Ed and Diana at First Baptist Church in Simla, Colorado this past  Sunday for morning worship. We parked in one of the “parking suggestions”…that means there are no lined spots to steer the vehicle into. You just park it in the general vicinity!

Thelma, one of the church saints, was standing on the front steps. And then it hit me! I didn’t have a key, and Thelma, who had arrived early to prepare communion, didn’t have a key.

“Do you have a key, Pastor Bill?”

“No, Thelma, I don’t! And I’m assuming that since you’re standing here on the steps that you don’t either.”

“No, I came early to get communion ready.”

“Oops!” I walked around to the area on the other side of the steps that disguises itself as a landscaped garden of shrubs and plastic flowers. In the past it also had served another purpose. A key to the church was hidden underneath one of the rocks that decorated the area. I commenced to turning each rock over and seeing if a treasured key was to be discovered.

Polly came walking around the corner with a cane, but no key.

“Good morning, Polly!”

“No key!”

“Not yet! We may have to worship on the front steps this morning.”

“That would be okay!” she replied. One of the wonderful things about this small congregation is that no one gets bent out of shape when a crisis…like no key…happens. In a town of diminishing population and limited opportunities…life happens! Polly had been gone from the church for years and has recently returned. When she attended years ago she didn’t have to have a came along wth her, but now mobility issues abound. Her church family offers her encouragement for the slowed-down journey.

I came up empty on my hidden key search amongst the rocks. John and Sherry pulled up and we all looked towards them with limited hope.

“Good morning, John! Good morning, Sherry!”

“No key?” they question.

“Not yet!” The probability of worship on the steps was increasing! John and Sherry were okay with that. They’ve headed up a summer experience called “Cowboy Camp” for years. It meets in the midst of someone’s pasture for five days in late June. People from miles away bring their campers and lawn chairs for the preaching, teaching, and music. It’s all outside, so John and Sherry might feel more at home on the steps than in the pews. John’s cowboy hat is an indication of this.

“I wonder if Henry and Mildred have a key?” Thelma asks. “I know they did years ago.”  Henry and Mildred are the ninety-somethings of the fellowship. They are about the dearest people you could ever meet, now in the last years of their journeys. Henry has limited vision and Mildred has limited hearing. Mildred went through a tough time recently when their family dictated that she could no longer drive. It was a hit to Mildred’s independence and purpose. Struggling through each day with limited energy, driving the Town Car around town whispered to her that she could still do things. Taking the car keys away, even though it was a decision made in love and a needed development, edged Mildred towards the pit of depression.

“I think Angie is picking them up today, so we’ll see soon,” Sherry said.

Our growing cluster stood around the steps and chatted about communion grape juice, rain showers, and the Methodists. I was formulating a revised worship order in my mind that could be accomplished on the steps. We could pick out a couple of songs that we all were familiar with and go to town A cappella with them. John’s cowboy hat could be the makeshift offering plate. It was doable!

But about that time Angie arrived with her two kids…and Henry and Mildred.

“Good morning!” everyone greeted one another.

“Any of you have a key?” Thelma asked.

“I do!” replied Angie.

“Praise the Lord!” echoed a couple.

“I’m not sure if it fits the front door or the back door.”

“As long as it fits a door that’s all right,” I chirped.

It fit the back door! Angie’s daughter, Lena, made her way from the back of the church to the front and we all laughed and gleefully chit-chatted our way into the sanctuary.

I thought to myself that whether a key was found that day or not, we still were going to have church…and we were the church!

 

Church Going To the Dogs

February 13, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    February 13, 2017

                     

A few decades ago I remember being on the front steps of our church, First Baptist Church of Ironton, Ohio. An elderly man was coming up the steps just as a dog bounded up the steps past him. The man stopped for a moment and I heard him mutt-er “Dogs going to church!” He climbed a couple more steps and paused once again, and with a grin on his face he said, “Church going to the dogs!”

Recently we discovered a church where people can bring their dogs. The worship service is transmitted on an AM radio station to the cars parked in the parking lot. Some of the cars are occupied with people who have difficulties with crowds or allergic reactions to perfume scents. But many of them are occupied with canines brought to church by their owners. Attenders never have to get out of their car, unless Fido has to relieve himself!

Unique, yes! It’s not my cup of tea, but for some people it obviously works. After all, there was a film a few years ago entitled “All Dogs Go to Heaven!” So, perhaps, going to church is the prequel!

Staying in the car with the pooch has a downside and an upside. The downside is that the attender never enters into “community.” Church is about much more than an order of worship to go through, message to hear, and the offering plate to pass. Being the community of believers is the oft-forgotten part of it. It’s the meshing of lives in the progression of the journey.

The upside is that the dog-loving attender can escape the drama of church that often focuses on the petty and ridiculous. Stay in the car and get spared from the stupid! Let’s face it! Some church folk are more concerned about keeping the carpet clean than they are about people being cleansed!

So…I’m not sold on the dogs-going-to-church idea, but, of course, I don’t have a dog! I might feel differently if Lassie came home to live with me.

What do you think?