Archive | March, 2013

The show must go on

42nd+Street+logolargeonpurple

The church I serve has a high school choir program.  Big deal, right?  Lots of churches have high school choirs.

No, this one really is a big deal.

They sing every Sunday in worship, which is not surprising for a church choir, although the fact that a group of high school students sings at the 8:30 service each week (without complaint) certainly is surprising.  They tour every summer (with international tours every few years).  And then, every year for the last 40 years they have staged a Broadway musical.

This year it’s 42nd Street – yes, “Lullaby on Broadway, the hip hooray and bally hoo.”  That one.

Last year it was Oklahoma.  The year before that it was Little Shop of Horrors (kind of edgy for a church choir, I know).

We have kids with passable voices (in other words, way better than mine), and we have a few kids who are seriously considering musical theater as a career.  And every year, with a little help from a small army of adults (mostly parents, but a few other dedicated volunteers too), they stage a musical that could stand proudly alongside any community theater effort.

It’s astonishing when you think about it.

Here’s the thing, though.  There are some in the church who are kind of discouraged.  Our numbers are down from the halcyon days.  At one time, so I’ve been told, there were more than 60 kids in the choir.  Today, on a typical Sunday, we get close to 30 – unless one of the high schools had its homecoming the night before.

Every time I hear the “it’s not what it used to be” refrain (sorry, couldn’t help that one), I get a little defensive, and I’ll tell you why.  Most churches would love to have a high school choir, one that sang every Sunday morning.  Most churches would be grateful for even a handful of students who would come out every week for rehearsal.  What we have is a wonderful gift.

We’ve been hit hard by demographic shifts – and a few other issues (like the ones I mentioned in last Sunday’s sermon) – but the choir goes on.  If there is any less energy among the kids today than there was 10-15 years ago, you would never know it from the opening production last night.

These kids are amazingly good, and I’m proud of all of ‘em.

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Love God, love our neighbors as ourselves

[Below is a sermon I preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale on March 3, 2013.  I don’t ordinarily post sermons. In fact, this is the first one in nearly a year of blogging.  But there’s a reason.  I’ve been silent on this blog for longer than at any time since the trip to South Africa.  The content of the sermon suggests that this has been a busy time, and it certainly has been.  I post this because I think it’s a story that should be told.]

FPC FT Lauderdale

A little more than four years ago, I was serving as pastor of a large church in a Big Ten university town.  Except for the long winters there, it was a wonderful setting for life and ministry.

I was not looking for a new position.

Typically, when you’re five years into a call, you’ve finally gotten most things arranged the way you like them, so that’s ordinarily a time to take a deep breath, not a time to go looking for a new challenge.

Ordinarily.

But then one day my phone rang.

I’m still not sure how the church found my cell phone number.  But I do remember that it was a Friday afternoon when the phone rang, and I was out making hospital calls.

The person who called wondered if I would be interested in a church in Florida, and I laughed.  I said, “I’m not moving.  I’m perfectly happy where I am.”

That night, at home, I told Susan about this phone call from someone named Mark in Fort Lauderdale.  She said (I’m quoting here), “I’m not moving to Florida.”

So, that was that.  Or, so I thought.

A month later, however, I received another call, and I forget which member of the search committee called this time, but the purpose of the call was to say, “What’s your preaching schedule for the next few weeks?  We’d like to come up and hear you preach.”

And they did.  Not the entire committee, but a few of them.  And here’s the thing: I liked them right away.  I liked them very much.

There was a quality to them that I responded to.  They were warm and caring, and deeply committed to faith.  I sensed in them a friendship rooted in Christian faith.

A week or so after their visit, they wondered if Susan and I would like to come to Florida to see the church.  If you live in Michigan, and you have an opportunity to go to Florida in December, you take it. So, we did.

What we found – in addition to balmy temperatures – was a larger group like the first one we met.  Warm, caring, deeply committed to their faith, and this other thing: friendship rooted in Christian faith.

And suddenly – just that fast – our lives were turned upside down.

We knew that we wanted what we had found in this committee.  Our lives were hungry for it.  We didn’t realize how hungry until we met them.

And so, we came.  Coming to Fort Lauderdale was about a feeling a call.

I think all of those qualities we found in the small group of people we met at the beginning are present in this congregation.  I think that our strength as a church continues to be the warmth and caring and the deep devotion to faith and this other thing: friendship rooted in Christian faith.

But – and this is an understatement if there ever was one – our church has been severely tested.  We have been tested about as severely as it is possible for a church to be tested.

Number one, our previous pastor resigned suddenly and without warning.  There was no opportunity to say good bye as a church.  The pastoral relationship simply came to an end.  Which is almost never a good thing.  No church wants to end a relationship with a pastor in that way.

It leaves a wound, one which has not been completely healed.

Then, there was the building campaign.  This congregation had a vision that was as ambitious as any I have ever known.  The plan was to build a family center and a parking garage on Las Olas Boulevard, and the price tag for all of that was around $25 million.

Many churches might have taken a deep breath in the face of that number, but we pushed ahead – only to have the entire project rejected by the city.

That was a huge disappointment too.  Another wound.

The fight with our neighbors didn’t help much either.  A church never wants to show up on the front page of the local newspaper, unless it’s for all of the good things we’re doing in the community.

But there we were – on the front page.

And one Sunday there were even signs in the yards around the neighborhood – “Stop First Presbyterian Church!”

The morning those signs appeared was a low point in my ministry.  It was also a wake-up call that something was not quite right.

And then last, but not least, the national economy cratered in late 2008, and many of our members no longer felt as wealthy or as generous as they had been feeling. There were even a few church members who realized that they could no longer afford to live in the homes they owned.

As with the majority of Americans, our lives were changed – almost overnight.

For several years – and I think this is critically important too – since most people didn’t seem to know at the time – and this was just before I arrived as pastor – the church was drawing down its endowment to pay its bills.  But we weren’t just drawing down the endowment.  We were drawing down the endowment at the rate of a half million dollars per year.  That’s a staggering amount.

And as you know, you can’t keep up a spending rate like that for very long, without drying up the endowment.

So, during my first year the church had its first balanced budget in a long, long time.  And as the federal government is discovering, it’s a painful process to get there.  No one feels good about cutting back.

Actually, people like the idea of cutbacks, just not ones that affect them personally.

So, these last few years, the church has been trying very hard to get its financial house in order.  Again, that’s not much fun.  The fun of ministry is starting programs, doing mission, rallying people around a common goal.  That’s fun, and that’s energizing.

Looking for places to make cuts does just the opposite.  It dampens the spirit.

But back to the building project.  Through all of this, the dream of a building on Las Olas for some reason had not gone away.  We scaled the project way, way back.  We received the necessary zoning change back in December from the city.

And on January 27, I preached a sermon about “The Importance of a Building.”  It was the day of the annual meeting.  I said that to build the building we would need to get everyone behind it.

I used the story from Nehemiah about the building of the wall around Jerusalem, and I said the only reason the people of Israel were able to build that wall was that everyone – every man, woman, and child – was united behind the project.

About the time I preached that sermon, members of the church were being asked to fill out a survey.  There were only eight or nine questions on the survey.  It wasn’t a difficult survey to complete.  And many did.  The total number of responders was 382.

That doesn’t include every member by a long shot, I know, but as surveys go it was a very good sampling.

And then the results started to come in.  I mailed a summary of those results to you last week.  And if you didn’t get them, you can find them on the church’s website.

As you may have noticed, if you took a look, there was no consensus – either in the membership or in the leadership.

We’re a church that’s not of one mind about what to do.

Which, I must say, is not a recipe for unity or excitement.  It’s a very uncomfortable place to be.

So, last Thursday night, faced with division in this congregation about how best to proceed, with strong feelings on both sides of the issue, the Session voted not to go forward at this time with a capital campaign.

The dream of a family center on Las Olas was put on hold.

Your leadership decided that this was a time to continue working on our church’s solid financial footing and to refurbish our existing properties, most of which, as you may have noticed, could use substantial work.

In my opinion – and it wasn’t a unanimous vote – this was a good and prudent decision.

But – I agree with you – it was also disappointing.  Deeply disappointing.

Many people dream of one day being asked to serve on a leadership board, and I’m sure they think of the honor and respect that goes with the nomination.

But sometimes the reality of actually serving is very different.  Board members sometimes are called on to make hard decisions, and that’s what happened last Thursday night.  Quite a few of us did not sleep well afterward, if we slept at all.

And the question is, where does that leave us?

You know, in a time of disappointment, or crisis, or even tragedy, what happens is that people and organizations and churches look deep within.  They try to re-discover their true mission and purpose.

They try to re-claim their core strength.

Quite a few marriage and family therapists will begin a counseling relationship with a couple in crisis by saying, “What was it that brought you together in the first place?  What did you see in each other?  Can you remember those first few weeks and months?  What was that like?”

And sometimes – not always – those questions can soften the hard feelings.  They can begin to heal the brokenness.  Sometimes couples who are in conflict with each other can be encouraged to remember that they are better together than apart.

A year ago, I told you the story of a pastor in upstate New York whose church was destroyed by fire when lightning struck the steeple.  That church was like most churches across the country – it’s located in a small town, and it has fewer than 200 members.  That’s just the reality for most churches across the country.

In other words, not great prospects for growth.  That church is never going to become Calvary Chapel.  The total population in the town is less than 5,000.

The reason I know about that church is that I serve on a grant making board and the pastor of that church applied for a grant to turn one of the charred beams from the old church into a cross for the new sanctuary.

She wanted to hire a sculptor to create something out of the ruins that would always remind them of the old church, that would show God’s faithfulness and redeeming power.

As you can imagine, her story touched me deeply.  I think she’s one of the heroes of the church today.  We tend to focus our attention on mega church pastors and TV preachers, but the people who deserve our admiration, as far as I’m concerned, are the small-town pastors who do it all – who preach and teach and sit in hospital rooms and go on youth retreats and take out their own garbage.

The Rev. Bonnie Orth has announced that her church will be back in their brand-new sanctuary on Easter morning, and there’s going to be a cross up front.  They have gone from a crushing defeat to an amazing victory.  They’ve gone from Good Friday to Easter.

I think that’s possible here too.  And we’ve got far more resources to work with than Bonnie Orth had.

The words of Jesus I read for you today are an answer Jesus gave to a trick question.  We’ve long since forgotten why it was a trick question, but we do remember his words:

“Love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…and love your neighbor as yourself.”

I think that is as good a summary of the Christian life as you’re going to find.  Sometimes we make it far more difficult than it needs to be.  People would love to be part of this community of faith if they knew that we embraced those words…they’re revolutionary.

In the end what we most need to do is to “love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.”

The strength of this church has always been in its relationships.  Warm and caring relationships.  People are hungry for that.  They want to be loved.

One of our elders last Thursday night – and I asked for his permission to repeat this story – happens to be a high school student, our youngest and newest elder.

When he raised his hand to speak, I had no idea what he might say.  I figured that what he would say was that he really wanted a place to play basketball, a gymnasium.

Instead he said, “I’m at this church because of Ben and Nic.  They’ve made a difference in my life.  I love this church.  Not because of the facilities, but because of the people I’ve met here.”

I would like to make a modest proposal.

Let’s take some time – a few months, or a year maybe – and let’s concentrate on living out those words of Jesus.

Let’s not get fancy or elaborate or expensive.

Let’s be as basic as we have ever been.

Let’s take time to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.

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