Archive | October, 2012

Anticipating Africa

We leave for Africa a week from Friday.

There is always in the days leading up to a trip the sweet feeling of anticipation, and today is no exception.  Tomorrow it will be even better.  And so on until we leave.

It’s not as though I haven’t been to Africa before, if you count day trips, one to the Sinai Peninsula to climb Mount Moses and another to Tangiers to purchase rugs.  But those were short visits taken a long time ago and tacked to the back end of other trips to other places.

To add to the sense of anticipation, I’ve met with most of my fellow travelers several times to plan, swap stories, and sample some extraordinary South African wine.  There will be 17 of us who will travel separately and then come together for one weekend in the village of Acornhoek in the northeastern corner of the Republic of South Africa.

And it’s really this one weekend that I am most looking forward to.

Our plan is to dedicate a fresh-water well in a part of the country that doesn’t have nearly enough wells, where people must walk miles to have what we ordinarily take for granted in this country, where one in three is HIV positive.

Our group raised the money for the well during the last year.  Then we hired a local well driller and paid him half of the cost (the other half on completion).  And now we’re waiting for word that he has started and – more important – that he has found water beneath the village.

The well is to be drilled near the Calvary of Hope Christian Church in Acornhoek, which is an hour or so west of Kruger National Park, and we will worship with the people of this church on that weekend.

I have been invited to preach that Sunday, and I haven’t been quite so anxious about a sermon since my year as a student pastor more than 30 years ago.  Members of our group who have visited Acornhoek previously have brought back videos of the church at worship, and it’s wonderful, but also a bit scary.  There’s plenty of dancing and singing and celebration, not at all like Presbyterian worship in this country where worship, if I may be honest, can be just a bit subdued.

Pastor Winny Manzini founded the church, along with her husband, who died in a car accident a couple of years ago.  She is carrying on alone and appears to be a strong and forceful presence in that church.

I can’t wait to meet her.  I can’t wait to worship with her people. I can’t wait to dance and sing and celebrate.–La40

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A memorable birthday card

I still love the homemade birthday cards from my kids, even when they’re 25 years old. Received this one last week from my (younger) daughter…

Things to do on your birthday:

1. Take a lot of pregnant pauses [something I’m known for, especially among family members]
2. Thoroughly clean the kitchen, then declare that “kitchen is closed!”
3. Bleach the crap out of something [it’s true, I love to use lots the bleach when doing the laundry]
4. Play on iPad until you fall asleep with your mouth open
5. Be generally awesome and wonderful

Love you, Papa!

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Those were the days

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this story over the years.  In nearly every church I’ve served it’s been the same thing.

At the end of the year, when the church was facing a deficit, the pastor would meet with a small group of men, usually at “the club,” over drinks, and the deficit would go away.

I can’t say that these stories prompt admiration in me for my predecessors – not for their fund raising abilities or for their drinking habits. And yet, I notice that these stories are almost always told fondly, as though those were the good old days.

What was good about them, as far as I can tell, is that someone else always picked up the tab for the church.  If a half dozen well-off church members paid the bills every year, well, that meant other people wouldn’t have to dig deep and somehow help to make the budget.

In each church where this story has been told, there have been members who looked to me to cultivate similar relationships and somehow keep the tradition going: “We’ve got to introduce Doug to some key people.”  Wink, wink.

The hard truth is, those days are gone – or very nearly gone.  But the memories live on, as well as the bad habits.

My church here in Fort Lauderdale has dreamed for many years of building a family center on Las Olas Boulevard, an important retail/restaurant thoroughfare that connects downtown and the beach.  Having a presence on Las Olas has always seemed to be a critical piece of the church’s growth and trajectory, and so for 61 years it has – one by one – purchased the necessary parcels of land.

Today we have the land, we are close to getting the necessary city approvals, and the plans are truly exciting.  Our only problem is, most members are convinced that someone else is going to pay for the project.

Reminds me of the old joke:  A preacher once said to his congregation, “The good news is that we have the money to pay for the new building.  The bad news is that it’s still in your pockets.”

Given the history of our church, though, I see a silver lining.

If the new building is going to be built, if our dream is going to be realized, if our church is finally going to have a presence on one of the most important streets not just in Fort Lauderdale, but in south Florida, then the money is going to have come from the entire membership.  Not from five or six people, meeting over drinks at “the club,” but from everyone.

I think this is good news, not just for the new building, but for the church more generally.  We have an opportunity to change the culture of the church to something that more clearly reflects what we believe.

We are the church.  Not a select group, but all of us.  The change will be good for us.

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Learning from Felix Baumgartner

I wouldn’t wish my preaching style on anyone.  If you’re a new preacher, learn from someone else.

I got into bad habits early, and I’m too old to change.  Or maybe not.

When I preach, most of the time I stand in one place (typically a pulpit) with my manuscript in front of me.  I try my best to learn the sermon and not refer to it very often, but the videos of my sermons on the church website do not lie.  I look at the manuscript a lot.

Which makes what I did last Sunday night all the more astonishing.

At our new 5:00 service (we call it “expressive,” not “contemporary,” because “contemporary” is divisive, and we don’t want that), the preacher usually stands at the front and not in the pulpit.  I don’t ordinarily preach at the 5:00 service, but I did last Sunday.  And that presented a problem.

But earlier in the day a man named Felix Baumgartner stepped out of a capsule and fell more than 20 miles to earth, passing the speed of sound along the way, and landing on his feet.  I watched that and thought to myself, “Mmmm, if Felix Baumgartner can do that, then I can stand in front of the church tonight without my manuscript and preach my sermon.  The two things require pretty much the same level of courage.”

No kidding, I really did think that.

Here’s the full story, and maybe it’s more than you wanted to know. I was a writer before I was a preacher.  I really, desperately wanted to be a writer – or work for a publishing company, one or the other.  I was in love with words, especially my own words.  And from about fifth grade onward, I’ve been trying to get better as a writer.

And so, when I started preaching – you guessed it – I carefully crafted my sermons, not realizing that the spoken word is a lot different from the written word. People who hear a sermon typically don’t care what the sermon looks like on paper.

Rather than doing the right thing early on – ditching the manuscript – I compensated by learning the sermon really, really well.  For years I would get to the church early on Sunday morning, earlier even than the custodian, and preach my sermon two or three times to an empty sanctuary.

Turns out, that was a good way for me to learn to be a preacher, but it also set in place the problem of being dependent on the manuscript. What happened last Sunday night is that I proved (to myself) that I’m not too old to learn better preaching habits.

Like all preachers who preach without notes, I probably repeated myself and probably wasn’t as concise as I would like to be, but no one complained. Instead they commented on the naturalness of it.  I’m determined to do it again.

The preacher in me wants to ask, “What did you learn from Felix Baumgartner?”

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The Bible and Teeth

“What does the Bible have to say about teeth?

Just when I thought I had heard every question that could possibly be asked about the Bible, I heard that one last week.

A member of the last church I served – and my dentist for the years I was there – emailed me with that question. Turns out he was asked to speak about his vocation to the older adult ministry at my former church, and he thought he would toss in a reference or two to the Bible.

And naturally that’s when he thought of me.

So, the question wasn’t about the position that Bible takes regarding teeth, but simply about tooth references.  Actually, writing about the Bible’s position on teeth might have been a more interesting question to explore.  I would like to think that Bible takes a strong and conservative stand on teeth, not a liberal and wishy-washy one.

In any case, I approached the question the way I approach nearly all questions these days.  I turned to Google and typed “Bible and teeth.”

The result?  Well, you won’t be surprised to know that the Bible contains many, many references to “weeping and the gnashing of teeth,” which biblically speaking is often the sound you hear from some very sad and grief-stricken people.

I didn’t know before, but as the result of my research I am now aware that the idiom or expression “by the skin of my teeth” comes from the Bible – from the Book of Job, as a matter of fact.  As with most idioms, it’s meant to be taken figuratively, not literally – as in “you’re pulling my leg,” which to my knowledge is not found in the Bible.

Okay, but the biblical reference that I thought had the most potential for my old friend’s talk was one from Amos 4:6 where God says he has given his people “cleanness of teeth.”  Sounds good, right?  Not so fast. That’s another idiom or expression, and in context it means that the people haven’t had much to eat of late … and so their teeth are clean.

Look – and it has taken more than 300 words to get here – we tend to use the Bible in some very peculiar ways … for a laugh during a talk at a seniors gathering, for example, or to back up our views on a variety of topics, or to find names for our children, etc.

What I hope we never lose sight of is that the Bible is mostly a story – our story, of course, but more importantly God’s story. So, the Bible tell us not only who we are, but also who God is, and what the relationship between us is like or ought to be like. That’s an amazing gift when you think about it.

And if the Bible gives us a smile or two about our teeth, I suppose that’s okay too.

If Dan gets a big ovation from his audience in Michigan, I told him he’s invited to speak to our older adults in Florida, minus the biblical references.

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October is Pastor Appreciation Month

Only one month?

Seriously, this month is Pastor Appreciation Month. And church members all over the country are … well, to be honest, I’m not quite sure what they’re doing.

Ever since the Apostle Paul wrote to his young protégé Timothy and urged honor “for those who labor in preaching and teaching,” church members have looked for ways to say thank you to their pastors.

A quick Google search revealed that it was actually Focus on the Family in 1994 that set the whole Pastor Appreciation Month thing in motion.  That organization claimed it was appropriate to honor pastors “and their families” all year long, but they decided to set aside one month each year for “a special tangible tribute.”

I don’t think that the “tangible tribute” was ever specified, but I certainly have ideas, in case you’re looking for some.

When I was serving a church in New Jersey a long, long time ago, one of my close clergy friends was the pastor of the black Baptist church in town.  Our friendship was an eye-opener to me.  I had grown up in a culture that thought its pastors should be poor.  A sack of potatoes left at the back door was about the only “tangible tribute” church members might imagine – and that was often in lieu of salary.

My pastor-friend Ron might have received the occasional sack of potatoes, but he received a great deal more. He drove a large Lincoln, he wore a dazzling Rolex watch, and he always seemed to have on a shiny, new suit.  He told me that every year on the anniversary of his ordination his congregation would buy him a new suit – and a new dress for his wife.

I was driving an old, rusting Toyota at the time, so I mentioned all of this to my elders one night at a Session meeting, but nothing ever came of it.  I came to realize that in some African American churches members want their pastor to look good, to have everything the members themselves aspire to.  When he looked good, they looked good.

At the Presbyterian Church across town, I was expected to make do with what I had and be grateful for it.  And I was.  Most of the time.

What I’ve learned – over the last 32 years of ordained ministry – is that my work is appreciated a great deal more often than the work of most of my members.  Along the way, churches have celebrated my marriage, the births of my children, the publication of my books, the beginnings and endings of my pastorates, and many other special times in my life.  Beyond that I regularly receive touching and heart-felt notes from church members about sermons I preach and other things I do.

As I say, I am probably remembered more times and in more thoughtful ways than most of the members of my church.  I am aware that many businesses do not recognize their employees – and hardly remember to say good-bye when they leave.

So, the truth is, I feel blessed.  And some days I feel blessed beyond measure.  If you come to my office I’ll show you a ceramic bowl on my shelf which contains all of the thank-you notes I’ve received in the last three years.

My bowl runneth over.

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