Categories
Gospel Life

Telling the Story

I readily admit that I’m not the greatest at doing online worship or devotions. Maybe I’m getting a bit better each time I write and record audio and live stream, but I’m not good. Yet.

After online worship this Sunday, I poured myself my third cup of green tea and sat down in a chair in the living room. Usually I spend time reflecting on worship, thinking about things I did well and not so well. My sermon may have been too long or contain a longer story than normal. The prayers could have been a little long or too short or were missing that “something something” that would make a petition pop. 

And then I complain to myself that I could be better.

As I was reflecting Sunday morning, my phone rang. The out of town number wasn’t in my contact list so there I sat for a few seconds trying to figure out who was on the line. Taking a deep breath as I put my earphones in, I tapped the green icon on my iPhone’s screen. After saying “hello,” the person on the other line was a pastor friend.

Surprised to hear from him on a Sunday morning, we chatted a bit about how things are going in our respective communities. Here in Bergen County, things have been tough for a while. Where my friend lives, not so much. His town has seen single-digit coronavirus cases. That’s a good thing.

He complained about online learning and couldn’t understand how parents can be homeschool teachers with children who want to play on their phones all the time. We laughed that now parents see their children in their true light…and thus we pray for their teachers.

My friend told me that things were going OK for him and his families – his wife and kids were fine as were the members of his church. I told him my story of funerals, death, life’s struggles, and worship issues being locked up at home. Overall, I’m fine and doing well.

“Anthony, I gotta ask you something.”

“Sure. Go right ahead.”

“Do you think we pastors can be so focused on orthodoxy we miss what’s going on around us?”

“Huh?”

He went on to tell me that he records his weekend divine service on Friday morning. Over the course of the day, he takes the video and edits it, taking out blunders and reducing the time between parts of the liturgy. For example, he cuts out the time when he walks from the altar to the pulpit to preach. When he’s done, he uploads it to Vimeo and places the video on his church’s website. Congregation members then watch it at their leisure over the weekend.

“I got this call from a person in my congregation yesterday,” he said, “and it disturbed me. She told me that my sermons are difficult to watch because the house is on fire, people are dying, and you’re talking about how it’s our fault for the fire.

Ouch. As soon as he said that, I knew exactly what that member of his church was thinking. 

Lutheran pastors are trained to preach sermons that are supposed to balance “Law and Gospel.” The Gospel is easy – Jesus is your Savior. The Law is harder for the focus is on the individual listening or watching the sermon and their sin. So, in a nutshell, the sermon is supposed go something like “You’re a sinner. Thank God for Jesus for saving your wretched soul. Amen.”

The pattern can be switched up, but the basic foundation is there – Law, you the sinner have broken it; Gospel, Jesus came to save you. 

This hermeneutic structure is fine – nothing is wrong with it. But what happens in times of crisis that we’re living in? Do people want to hear that they are super sinners in every sermon? Is it possible to switch up the formula a bit to put the church in the midst of the crisis and encourage the living of the Gospel to make lives better? 

I think “yes.”

Here in Bergen County, the infection rate of the virus is well over 13,000. In the grand scheme of things, 13,000 infected people in a county of 932,000 people doesn’t sound overly horrific. The numbers of deaths – 741 – when compared to the population sounds less significant. But as Bergen County people, we see the impacts of the virus around us daily. We see the sadness and the heartbreak.

People are getting really sick. Even those who never need hospitalization or spend time in an ICU, the sickness they are dealing with is terrible. A friend of mine from New York went to the testing drive through in New Rochelle a couple of weeks ago because his wife was feeling ill and had symptoms of the coronavirus. Their doctor gave them a prescription to get a test. They went, got tested, and they found out later that she was fine but he was sick. It shocked them because he was feeling good. On the orders of their doctor, he isolated himself at home in his garage (it is like a family recreation room with a 85 inch TV). And as the days went on, he was feeling great, until Thursday of this week. He started coughing and feeling terrible. His fever had spiked to 101. On Saturday morning, he was thinking of heading to the hospital. “I felt like dying.” 

He didn’t die or go to the hospital. When I spoke to him Saturday night, he said his fever had dropped to 99 and he was able to eat something (Doritos). He still felt bad, but was getting better.

The numbers of unemployed people are beyond astronomical here in New Jersey and around the country. More than 700,000 people in the state have filed for unemployment. And do you think that the unemployment system is able to keep up with this massive flood of filers? Of course not! So many people in Bergen County are struggling to get food on their tables because they have zero income. Food banks and pantries are being overwhelmed. 

Most of these people work paycheck to paycheck. Without a paycheck, they’re in a deep crisis. 

A week ago I was online at the ShopRite supermarket in New MIlford when a woman came out of the store crying. The supermarket was out of peanut butter. Most people will think, “What the heck? I’ll get almond butter instead.”  However, almond butter is much more expensive than peanut butter. While they told her that they expected a shipment, they were still out of the one thing she needed to feed her kids. She was unemployed and without an income. She was fighting to make ends meet, and she couldn’t as she waited for her unemployment check.

I know a businessman who had to layoff all of his employees because he couldn’t afford to pay them while his store was closed. While he applied for the PPP loan, his bank told him they couldn’t approve it because the system was overwhelmed. He then had to lay off his employees because he couldn’t pay them any more.

For pastors, we see the crisis all around us – at least we should see it. Not just from news stories on TV or in the newspapers but in our daily ministry. If you’re a pastor sitting at home spending more time editing videos or reading books in this time of crisis, you’re missing the point.

When a pastor can’t see the forest through the trees, or see that the house is burning down and he’s focused on something else, then they need to reassess the state of their ministry.

Sermons are supposed to be impactful with the Gospel, but also with the knowledge that the pastor gets what is going on around the people in their community. And in these times of crisis, pastors need to show that we’re all in this together – congregation, pastor, and Jesus. 

I get critiqued plenty of times when my stories drag on or that somewhere in my sermon I didn’t make sense. It happens. But in every sermon I try my best to make the Word of God impactful by connecting the Gospel to the people sitting in the pews or watching at home. And sometimes, I don’t talk about sin or Satan in these times of crisis because the fallen nature of the world we live in shows our greater need for the Gospel and for God.

Categories
Church Gospel Life LCMS Living Hope

‘Young People Don’t Go to Church’

“Young people don’t go to church.”

Ask anyone in the church today, the common refrain about the state of the established church on earth is that younger people – millennials, Gen Z’ers, Gen X’ers – don’t have a regular worship life. They could be the “high holy day” Christians, showing up on Christmas Eve or Easter morning. Or they be part of the “well, I was baptized and I believe in God, so I don’t need a church” crowd.

As recent news shows, a growing number of younger people are not only rejecting regular worship, but are rejecting God.

Church, as an institution, is frowned upon by our culture. The pedophilia priest issue in the Roman Catholic Church stained the entire Christian Church. I’ve been called various evil things about my role as a “priest” and questioned as to why hasn’t “my church” done anything to stop the abuse of children, even though I am not a Roman Catholic priest, but I wear the same type of black clergy shirts with a plastic tab in the neck. Other churches including my own Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod are called out for holding onto beliefs that are archaic and don’t have a place in the modern world. “Why doesn’t your church have women pastors,” I am asked. “Why do you hate gays and transgendered people,” is thrown at me even though I nor my church doesn’t hate gays or transgendered people.

Yet, even in mainline churches who embrace a modern view of the culture within the church are finding out that they, too, are seeing fewer and fewer people in their churches every Sunday.

“Young people don’t go to church.”

So the question of the viability of individual smaller churches is growing within the Church as a whole. Small churches can’t afford regular clergy leadership or any of the modern ways of worshipping that larger church institutions are making due with today. These smaller places of worshipping God can’t do the things larger churches do because there isn’t a support system to make them a reality. Every year, thousands of smaller Christian churches close because making a financial go of it is impossible.

And everybody blames the young people who don’t go to church.

The church, as a whole, needs to take the time to ask themselves questions about how they worship, how they do ministry, how they teach, how they evangelize, and how they serve their neighbor before they reflexively jump to the easy answer to the church’s problems that “young people don’t go church.”

We need to really take time to look at our churches and how we operate. Have our churches become social clubs where people in our churches meet for coffee and cake every week and do little on outreaching into our communities?

My LCMS, on a local level, is struggling. Small churches are closing. Where our urban churches are located, they are barely hanging on. And in many urban centers, our LCMS churches have just given up.

Some have ideas in which to save the church. Smaller churches could close up and join other churches so they can form slightly larger churches. More people would be in the pews every weekend, giving the newer church a chance at making it for a while.

Another idea is to close smaller churches in the suburbs and make them come together with a larger church so that this new, much bigger church can support missions within the urban areas.

Yet within our struggling churches, the people have the answer to all their problems – young people just have to come to church.

Maybe it is time for a new way to look at our local churches and how we “do church.” We need to begin to question our local church governance and our how we center our lives and our mission on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The time of the social club church is at its end.

Categories
Church Gospel Life Living Hope

Abilities for the Church

Since I last wrote about using talents for the good of the Gospel, I started thinking about how to get this message across. In more established congregations, members may not be the most hyped up people when it comes to community outreach. Here at St. Matthew’s, we’re the same. A lot of our members are older, closer to retirement or wanting to move closer to family in other parts of the country rather than doing outreach here in the greater New Milford area. Others just haven’t done this type of work in the church before and they don’t know how to do it.

As I was pondering the importance of becoming a church whose core is bringing Jesus to people, it hit me: Not everyone is equipped to do this type of work, but they have other skills and abilities that can support and grow the church behind the scenes. In reality, a church doesn’t exist if it doesn’t have an active support group willing to do things to make the church stronger for new people and those already part of the church.

The important aspect of the wholeness of the church is that it works together to make discipleship essential. No one is greater than another. We are all equal in the eyes of God. Everyone has skills and talents that strengthen someone else’s faith and comfort level. Leadership doesn’t mean lording abilities over others; it means providing a vision and a dedication to make sure that all people inside the church are using their best abilities for the growth of God’s House.

Let’s say that someone in the church is great with kids. How can this person use this talent to help grow the church? People in the church can be terrific cooks or bakers or musicians or craftspeople. Others have great people skills or can come up with great ideas to enhance worship or the various ministries inside the church. Can these types of skills be used to make people feel comfortable and welcoming to new friends and potential disciples in the church?

Just because someone is not ready to outreach doesn’t mean they aren’t a vital part of the church! The individual talents we’re given can be used favorably for the spreading of the message of hope in Jesus Christ. Every ability each of us has can do just that! 

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Categories
Church Gospel Life Living Hope

Gifts Of and For the Gospel

Over my 13-plus year ministry, I must have said it several thousand times – I love to write.

Yet, during my ministry, I’ve had fits of writing block and fought bouts of “my grammar stinks, I am not writing.”

In the faith, we believe God has given us gifts that we are supposed to use to bring Jesus to people. Some are amazing teachers – they take that gift of teaching and teach Jesus to young and old, in the church or outside of it. Others are amazing with their hands – they use their gifts to repair broken down furnaces or leaky pipes in the house of the Lord and for the people who fill the church. And even others have strong outward personalities – these are the type of people who could sell ice to Eskimos in Alaska, but instead, tell the story of Jesus in and through their professional and personal lives.

They use their gifts to help bring people to Jesus.

For some reason, I’ve stopped using this gift of writing for the betterment of the faith and the growth of the church. Instead, I’ve become the “same old’ pastor” people expect.

There are untold ways I could use this gift to reach out to people, but I haven’t.

In a pastor’s life, the struggles we see others having lay heavy on our hearts. Whether it is visiting the sick or dying, the aged who can’t leave home, those battling depression or addiction, pastors carry that collective burden. When churches are struggling, it is pastors who try to make a go-of-it and focus on the Gospel, preaching it so worried hearts in the pews can feel a bit of relief.

Yet as I look back over the past couple of years, I feel I’ve missed the boat. There have been too many times – on visits, in what I’ve written, in what I’ve preached – where the burdens of everyday pastoral life have guided me. I put the cross on the sidelines. I’ve let those God-given gifts wilt as I went on my everyday pastoral life.

This really hit home on Wednesday. A longtime member, Anna, passed away at 96. She was in a nursing home for a number of years, battling physical and mental issues. When I heard about her passing, something she said to me a while back popped up in my mind:

“When I die, just drop me a hole.”

She didn’t want a church service or even a funeral home visitation. All she wanted was to be left alone in death.

At the end of the funeral, as her family left and Anna’s body was lowered into the ground, I walked back to my car and started to cry. I know, I’m not a miracle worker who could change everyone’s heart to not just believe in Jesus but to trust in Him, but I felt that I missed out with Anna. Even as a faithful believer in Jesus, she had both a family and a church, but Anna still felt alone, at times hopeless.

I could have done more for her.  She wasn’t very hopeful about life or about others. Couldn’t I have done something to make her see that the people at church did care for her, that she wasn’t alone? She did like what I wrote – she even told me that I was crazy for things I’ve written. But she liked that no matter what I wrote, she found Jesus in it.

And over the last few years, that writing gift has languished. Could I have used it more for Anna, to show her that life is more than just aches and pains, but is truly centered on the living hope we have in Jesus? He knows our pains and our concerns, and He has promised to get us through them.

However, a gift is empty if it is hidden and not used.

With Anna, I could have visited her more, read the Bible to her more than I did, and prayed with her more. But I also could have been encouraging, using the Gospel to bring hope. See, the gift of the Word of God is something that all of us have been given. We all need to incorporate it into our lives better, enveloping our very beings with the preciousness of the living hope we have in Jesus.

Essentially we need to take the Word of God and use it through our God-given gifts to show discipleship. Since we’re saved through the blood of Jesus, we shouldn’t let the gift of the Cross stay inside the church so we can use it only on Sunday mornings.

The Cross needs to lead us in all that we do.

Everything in our lives needs to be built around the living hope we have in Jesus Christ. No matter our vocations or our lots in life, it is the cross that leads us.

I’ve failed at this.

But God doesn’t look at me as a failure. He sees me as one who is redeemed!

The redeemed life smacked me in the head this morning like a lightning bolt from heaven. Listening to Christian Radio on Apple Music, the song “You Say” by Lauren Daigle came on. Granted, I love this song and could listen to it several times a day. I sing along to it while driving in the car, or when I’m out walking, or just sitting down in the living room. But this morning, that heavenly lightning bolt hit me and for the first time, I listened to the words Lauren Daigle wrote.

The only thing that matters now is everything You think of me
In You I find my worth, in You I find my identity

You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing
You say I am strong when I think I am weak
And You say I am held when I am falling short
And when I don’t belong, oh You say I am Yours
And I believe, oh I believe
What You say of me
Oh, I believe

Taking all I have and now I’m laying it at Your feet
You have every failure God, and You’ll have every victory

No matter how many times I’ve heard this song, I missed its meaning. Our Father in heaven doesn’t look at us as failures, but as His people, His children for eternity.

And as His people, we are loved, built up strong in Jesus, and are His forever!

We are not alone. He’s right there with us.

Therefore, I – or I should say “we” – need to take up the cross of Jesus in our lives and show others what it means. As we build our future church here in New Milford, we’re doing it with Jesus leading us! He wants us to be these leaders in the faith for others who don’t believe and are outside the fellowship of believers.

As we take up the cross, we use our gifts to bring people to Jesus.

No one ever said the life of faith in Jesus was going to be easy.

But Jesus has called us to serve…to be leaders.

We use our talents for Jesus to help bring others to Him.

Categories
Culture Gospel Life Living Hope

It is About Jesus

Yesterday morning, I realized that I ran out of apples. Maybe it is an autumn-thing, but I tend to fill the fruit bin with the kitchen with enough apples to make an apple orchard-owner smile. Thursday morning? The bin was empty of apples.

My favorite apple? Macintosh. I fell for them when I was younger at the church I grew up in. A family in the church owned an orchard that grew red delicious and Macs. From September through Christmas, all they sold were Macintosh apples. They would bring brown grocery bags filled to the top and sell each bag for five bucks. They were amazing, both the family and the apples.

But Thursday morning, my fruit bin choices included a pear and an orange. Making a mental note that sometime during the day I needed to get to the Farmer’s Market on New Bridge Road to pick up some fruit and vegetables, I picked up the orange and went about on my day.

Late in the afternoon at the Farmer’s Market – not an actual “farmer’s market,” but a fruit and vegetable store – I picked up a small trove of Macintosh apples and stood online (or inline, depending on what word you use to describe checking out of a store – where I’m from, it is ‘online.’ Yonkers, NY – also where sandwiches from delis are ‘wedges,’ not ‘heroes’). The line was long, but I wasn’t going anywhere.

I wanted the apples.

”You’d think they’d put in a 10 items or less line in this place,” said the man standing in front of me as he turned around to face me. He had a few items in his basket.

”Yeah, but then how do you think they’d sell these massive bags of fruit near the checkouts if the lines were short?,” I replied.

He said his name was Jose and he was visiting his mother who lived in Bergenfield. He lives in Queens with his wife and son, but always finds time during the week to come over the two bridges (Triboro/RFK and the GWB) to visit mom and do some shopping for her. Mom apparently is a big fan of plantains (I’m guessing because he had a bunch of them in his basket).

We talked a bit – I told him I was a pastor who lived in New Milford; he said he was a manager of a KFC restaurant; we both are fans of the NYCFC soccer team and the New York Knicks; and we both go to church.

Jose attends a Pentecostal church in Queens, or as he described it, “a couple stops on the F train.” Growing up in the Bronx, his family attended a Roman Catholic Church. After his dad left his mom, she decided to move closer to her sister in New Jersey. By then, Jose was old enough to live on his own. He moved in with his girlfriend who became is wife. College was too expensive, so he went to work to earn money to pay for it.

Only problem was that he loved working. He worked at several fast food places and ended up working at a KFC where he is now the manager. Not that he’s let his dreams of a college business degree die – he’s attending college, mostly at night. His wife is a teacher in the NYC Public Schools.

As he put the plantains and other items from his basket onto the counter, I asked him what attracted him to the Pentecostal church he attends.

”Chicken wings.”

What?

”Every Sunday after church, Rosa in the congregation makes these chicken wings for lunch that are out of this world good.”

”So, you started going to church because of the wings?”

”Yeah. But I stayed for Jesus.”

Since there are so many theological differences between the Catholic Church and Pentecostalism, to me that seemed like a big leap. Jose said it wasn’t about theology or hymns.

“It is about Jesus.”

He attends a storefront church with 200 of his closest friends where they sing praise to Jesus and learn all about him and how Jesus changed their lives. It is not about laws or fancy clothes.

As he said, “It is about Jesus.”

Oh, and apparently the wings.

We both checked out and walked outside. I told him it was great to meet someone with such a strong faith. Jose asked if he could say a prayer because that is what his pastor says people in the church should do when they meet a God-fearing Christian: Stop wherever you are and pray with them. And he did.

I shook his hand and we both went our separate ways…in the name and in the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord.