Reflections From a Funeral

Funerals are important events. I’ve been to plenty of them over my lifetime, several during my childhood. Most of those were fun–I got to hang out with cousins I didn’t often see, telling stories from past adventures, stifling our giggles so as not to draw unwelcome attention from our parents. But as I grew up, funerals became occasions for grieving the loss of someone dear, or coming alongside a friend in their grief. Not fun, and therefore something to avoid whenever possible.

Frau auf Beerdigung mit Sarg

Now that I serve as a pastor in my church, I don’t get to avoid funerals anymore. In fact, yesterday I helped lead one. It was the first time I had served in that role, and I found it to be very meaningful.

I was blessed to visit with Diana in the days leading up to her transition. Admittedly, I have only known her for a half-dozen of her 82 years, but in that short time I came to respect and love her. Diana was probably the most grace-filled woman I have ever known. Her son confirmed this in his remarks at her funeral, reflecting that Diana accepted whatever life brought her way with quiet grace. This was certainly true in her last days. My final visit with her, just 48 hours before she passed, she greeted me with her sweet smile and gathered strength to thank me for coming, grace-filled to the end. Indeed, I was told that her transition from this life to the next was one of grace-filled peace.

On the way back from the graveside service yesterday, the funeral director commented that people often question the need for funerals these days. I can understand that–it’s expensive, it requires thoughtful planning, and it takes time away from things we would rather be doing. Moreover, it forces us to face our own mortality. And that is exactly why funerals are important.

As I ponder Diana’s life and death, I remember that my life grows shorter each day, too. I am now much closer to my own transition to eternity than when I first began! And I find questions arising out of that truth…

What am I doing with my life that honors God for his gracious giving of it? Am I living true to my calling? Where am I missing the mark? Am I taking full advantage of this life as training ground for the next?

As I ponder these questions, I know this: I want to be more like Diana, full of grace. Too much I rant and rave and shake my fist at God, to no avail. I want to be like soft clay in the hands of the Potter, that he might cultivate a quiet grace in me that blesses others and allows me to hear God in the stillness (think Elijah, 1 Kings 19:1-16). I want to accept what comes my way with unwavering faith in the God from whom all grace flows.

Everything teaches…even funerals. So I won’t avoid them anymore. Rather, I will seize the opportunity to face and reflect on my own mortality. I will welcome the hard questions and yield to God as he equips me for the good work he has called me to do, both here in this life and in the life to come. Amen and amen!

 

 

I love my church!

Driving past a local church yesterday, the message on their sign seized my attention.love my church

I didn’t quite know why it hit me the way it did, this seemingly innocuous message. After all, I’ve often said that I love my church! But something just didn’t set well. As I pondered, I realized that it was the little two-letter word, the possessive adjective “my,”  that bothered me.

You see, the church doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to God. It’s not my church. It’s God’s church.

What’s the point? Why pay so much attention to such a small word? Because the more we think in terms of my church, the more we risk inviting a consumerist mentality. When something belongs to me, I can treat it however I please. I can insist that it meet certain needs, fulfill a particular function the way I see fit. I can ignore it, or I can jealously guard it. If something belongs to me, I can control it.

But the church doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to God. The church doesn’t exist to serve me. I exist to bless God as I serve in and through his church. To think of it any other way is to risk loving the church more than I love God.

The role of the church member is to listen to the Head, responding obediently to His direction. She is to do her part, which is to work properly within the body, in order that the body–the church–grows and builds itself up in love in response to the Head’s–Jesus Christ’s–direction. (Ephesians 4:15-16)

As a pastor, I am a steward of God’s church. But that does not grant me ownership of it! I am called to equip the people to do the ministry of God’s church, working alongside them, guiding us all towards unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God. (Ephesians 4:12-13) I love God first, then I love His church!

I hope the folks in that church had a wonderful time celebrating yesterday! I think it’s wonderful to be part of a church that I love, and I’m sure they do, to0. But I always want to remember to whom the church really belongs. “My” church is really not mine at all. It belongs to God!

What difference does it make?

The Christmas decorating is done, the gifts are purchased, the holiday menus planned and theadvent candles grocery shopping completed. Seven pairs of pajamas are are sewn, ready and waiting for  wiggling little bodies to don them (I carry on my grandmother’s tradition of making pajamas for my grandchildren every Christmas). I haven’t accomplished this much so early in the season in years! Now I can sit back and wait… Or not.

I love the spirit of Advent–this season of waiting, of preparing our hearts for the coming of Jesus as we celebrate His first coming and expectantly await His second. But there have been too many years when I have been crazy-busy with all the shopping, decorating, sewing, baking…all the memory-making stuff of family life. Add to that the heightened activity for  church staff at this time of year, and it’s easy to find myself sadly wondering on December 26th just how I missed Christ in all that Christmas!

But not this year. This year I have time to ponder the signficance of Immanuel–God-with-us. I have time to reflect on Christ’s promise to come again, when He will make all things new! And the question that keeps popping into my mind is this, What difference does it make? What difference does it make that I know Jesus was born into our human condition, and that He suffered and died to atone for our sins? (Whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, I might add!) What difference does it make that I accept His promise to return, to establish a new world, a new order of life that is eternal? What difference does knowing all this make in my life today?

Many think that eternal life is something you get when you die. New life, a different kind of life, starts at conversion and never ends. -Bishop Todd Hunter

It’s easy to live for today, perpetually seeking self-gratification, when I think that the only life that counts is the one that begins after my bodily death. But I believe that my eternal life began the day I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior, and that changes everything. It means that how I live today has significance for the rest of my eternal life. My life today is supposed to be different from the life I lived before my conversion, and the choices I make today impact all my tomorrows…an eternity of tomorrows!

Jesus came to save the lost. He came to save me, and would have done so if I was the only person alive. But I’m not. There’s a whole world that Jesus wants to reconcile to the Father, and He bids me to help, to do what I can in my little corner. He didn’t save me just so that I could sit around and wait for Him to come back. He saved me so that I can make a difference.

Now that I think about it, the real question is What difference do I make?

That’s a question worth asking every day!

 

What difference might it make…?

I was in Colorado last week to come alongside ministry leaders, helping them develop the skills and systems to create an equipping culture in their churches. Their enthusiasm for creating a vibrant, serving mentality among those they influence encouraged me, and I sensed the question rising in me again, What difference might it make if you simply focused on helping others to live their God-given vocation in their everyday-walking-around life? To BE Christ wherever they are and whatever they are doing?

If you are a regular follower of this blog, you are probably thinking that this is nothing new, and you are quite right. This has been my theme for quite awhile! But the fact that I regularly pray Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven prompts me to continue asking if I’m doing all that I can–all that God is asking me to do–to encourage that reality.

It seems to me that if every believer is living their true vocation in their everyday life, the kingdom will come sooner. So, what does it look like for me to partner with God in making this prayer a reality? What is needed? As I asked this question, this is the answer that rose up within me: Each and every believer should…

  1. understand his or her true identity in Christ (Ephesians 2:10, 1 Corinthians 3:23)pitcher&basin
  2. grasp how the Spirit moves and works through His people (Matthew 5:16)
  3. discover and embrace his/her unique design for ministry (1 Corinthians 12 and 13)
  4. be ready and able to verbally share the gospel message (1 Peter 3:15)
  5. be connected to the body of Christ, the local church (Hebrews 10:25, Acts 2:42-47)

Each step is integral to becoming a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ, to facilitating the coming of the kingdom that we believers continually pray for. We can have systems and processes and programs to encourage an equipping culture in our churches, but if we neglect these basic five steps I don’t think that we–as equipping leaders–are doing all we can to hasten the coming of the kingdom of God.

Your thoughts?

The Path to Sainthood

My husband is a saint. He lives with me, an ordained deacon, who speaks, blogs, lectures, teaches, and thinks about serving…a lot. (He would say that’s an understatement!) It’s not easy to live with someone whose calling is to serve the church when you are stuck with serving the retail masses. One appears so much holier than the other. And for those who think–subconsciously or otherwise–that ordination might just be the true path to sainthood, David would be happy to debunk that myth!

But do I–the “paid holy person”–regularly affirm that his ministry is no less holy than mine?

Last week David was savoring the last few minutes of his lunch break as he sat in his car, listening to some blast from the past rock & roll tune–his way of de-stressing–when he noticed a young woman walking across the parking lot toward his car. She stopped a couple of feet from the door and asked him if he could help and her boyfriend. They were on their way to another town and had run out of gas. Not the most original story and he’s no fool, but he gave her a little money and she walked away. A few minutes later as he was entering the store to return to work, he saw her sitting on the curb by the door. He walked up and asked her what she was doing and she said she was hoping someone would come out who might give her a little more money. What David had given her was not enough, she said, to get her to the neighboring town. He knew this was true. He asked if she was telling him the truth and she pointed to her boyfriend across the parking lot standing next to the car. They walked over together and the boyfriend showed him the gas gauge sitting on empty. David believed the Spirit was prompting him, so he gave enough cash to fill the tank to help them on their way. Were these people taking advantage of him? Who knows. But it was a holy moment as David responded to the Holy Spirit.

Two days ago, David was in his department working when a woman came up to ask for help. As she explained what she was looking for, he realized that he was in for a long, drawn-out story–the kind that often signals a difficult customer. David’s initial inner reaction was irritation. But he sensed the Holy Spirit telling him that the task he was working on would wait, and so David listened patiently as the woman’s story unfolded. Before long, tears were sliding down her cheeks as she poured out her frustration about a contractor not finishing his job, leaving her house in disorder, and a blind daughter who had suffered many surgeries and who now couldn’t make her way around the house because nothing was in its proper place. My husband stood there in the paint department aisle in the middle of a busy day, serving this woman simply by listening compassionately. Would his supervisor have said David was wasting time? Probably. But it was a holy moment as David responded to the Holy Spirit.

My husband is a saint, but it’s not because he’s married to me. It’s because he fulfills his calling to serve as he goes about his everyday life, often in the most unholy places.

Ministry leaders: who needs your help in identifying the ways they live their call to serve in the everyday walking around moments of serve like Jesuslife, in the unholiest of places? Who needs to hear that the true path to sainthood is not reserved for the ordained, but rather open to all who believe in Jesus, who hear and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Encourage them to be aware of those holy moments, ready to act, ready to serve. Ready to be like Jesus.

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Mark 10:45 (ESV)

Numbers or stories?

As an organization grows and industrializes, it’s tempting to simplify things for the troops. Find a goal, make it a number and measure it until it gets better. In most organizations, the thing you measure is the thing that will improve.

Colleges decided that the SAT were a useful shortcut, a way to measure future performance in college. And nervous parents and competitive kids everywhere embraced the metric, and stick with it, even after seeing (again and again) that all the SAT measures is how well you do on the SAT. It’s easier to focus on one number than it is to focus on a life.

Measurement is fabulous. Unless you’re busy measuring what’s easy to measure as opposed to what’s important.   (Read Seth Godin’s post in its entirety here.)

Several months ago I measured the ministry of my congregation by adding up how many members are serving in a church-numbersrelated ministry role. Imagine my joy (oh, all right…my pride) when I discovered that 75% are serving! I sure couldn’t wait to announce that number, given the typical 80/20 rule of most churches: 80% of the ministry being done by 20% of the congregation.

But in reality, that measurement is not as impressive as it sounds. We are a small parish. Very small. If only 20% served, we would struggle to even have a worship service each Sunday! There would be no nursery, no children’s church, probably no music. By necessity, almost everyone in my parish has to step up and serve just so that we can have what is considered the bare minimum in most churches.

The truth is that what goes on inside the walls of a church is not the true measure of life-changing ministry. It is certainly not a credible measurement of the spiritual health of individual believers. But it is a whole lot easier to measure that kind of ministry than it is to measure spiritual health. And so we do. How many people are serving in church-related activities? How many people are in Sunday school? How many kids attend VBS? How many adults are in a small group? This is what many  churches typically measure. But what do these numbers really tell us?

Numbers are not a reflection of spiritual health. Stories are. Like the one I heard a few days ago: Sarah is one of our toddler church teachers, who works closely with our two nursery workers. Both have just finished college and are moving on to the next phase of their lives, so Sarah invited them to her home for dinner to celebrate their ministry with us. Sarah saw her ministry as coming alongside these lovely young women to encourage them in their faith as they step into adulthood.

Another story I heard recently involved two young families, one in need of a microwave and the other selling a microwave. The couple selling shared that they were selling all their “extra stuff” to raise money to adopt a child. The couple purchasing decided to give them more than the asking price because they, too, would like to adopt one day. The first couple insisted on giving the second couple the microwave as a “down payment for their future adoption fund.”

I don’t really know how to measure that kind of spiritual health, but I’m certain that it can’t be measured with numbers, with how many serve or how many attend. And I’m equally certain that I prefer those two stories of loving ministry to the comparatively cold 75% statistic I came up with when I did my head count!

So, what are you measuring?

When is the last time you heard a good ministry story?

When is the last time you shared one?

story

The spice of life?

decisions3Variety is the spice of life!

It’s an old saying that, for some of us, holds a lot of truth. Culturally speaking, I think we’ve taken variety to an all-time high. I’m currently in the market for a new computer. My laptop has a defect that can’t be repaired and, though it’s only four years old, it’s destined for the computer graveyard. I can’t tell you how much I loathe purchasing a new one. It’s not just having to shell out a chunk of cash, although that’s bad enough. No, what really frustrates me is trying to find the right machine for my needs for the right price. There are simply too many choices, and sorting through the variety of available options requires more energy and time than I want to invest.

For ten years I served on staff at a large church. The immense variety of programs was certainly attractive to me and to my family when we began worshiping there, and I was excited at the prospect of  coordinating their volunteer ministry. I remember the first time I actually counted all the serving  opportunities we offered: 250. I was really proud of that–so much for people to choose from! However, many folks coming through our discovery and placement process found it overwhelming. Choosing a ministry from the wide variety could be a daunting task. It often took several conversations, several trial runs, before we found the right fit. There were some who quickly tired of the process and simply opted out, never finding a place to serve that would grow their faith.

I now serve a small parish as the pastor of ministry development. Ministry development, however, is certainly not limited to creating serving opportunities. I do that occasionally. But primarily I am concerned with developing a person’s ministry–their vocation— for wherever they are at any given moment. I begin by engaging in meaningful dialogue around one’s passions in life, their personal preferences, the talents they were born with and the skills they’ve acquired, the experiences they have had, and the way the Holy Spirit has uniquely gifted them. When we take those discoveries and line them up with that person’s daily routines, we begin to see how all of life can be ministry and how ministry can be the wellspring of life.

In this way, those who thrive on variety can see that each new day offers plenty of opportunity for ministry, while those who would be overwhelmed by choosing from a list of 250 serving opportunities need look no further than their everyday life to find meaningful ways to serve. Variety made simple.

Now, if only the computer companies could grasp that concept…