How to Affirm Harmony and Unity

You wouldn’t think that riding your bike would provide examples of harmony and unity. Just steps away from our house is a bike trail with incredible vegetation, vistas that provide sweeping views, and access to a pier that goes out into a large lake filled with jumping fish, wetland birds, alligators, and wildlife of all kinds. The other day I saw a turkey on the shore. One evening I watched the sun dip down into the far side of the lake.

Harmony and Unity

One of the best parts of any bike ride on that trail, is spending time out on that pier watching how the unity and harmony of nature plays itself out. There is an ecosystem that works the way in which it was intended by the Creator. There is life. And there is death. There is beauty. And in the midst of that beauty, ugly things, too.

In other words, it’s a mess. Just like life.

Yet in all of it there is harmony and unity that exhibits the way all things work together for good.

I have now had eight months to become part of the ecosystem of a new (for me) congregation. I have been serving, teaching, preaching, visiting, listening, asking, working, learning, and living with the people of Ascension Lutheran Church.  We’ve been trying to put the pieces together. I feel as though I’ve been placed into an ecosystem that had already been working well, but was seeking ways to find even greater harmony and unity.

For months we have been having meetings and events designed to bring greater harmony and unity into an ecosystem where people have been brought together for a specific purpose. It’s not always easy. Where there are personalities, changes, and opinions, there are ups and downs, highs and lows. But where people have a common there is always a harmony and unity whether or not it is realized.

Last month we got together as a congregation to talk about unity, harmony, and purpose. It was an event that was well-received and met with enthusiasm. From the people who set up the room and put together the luncheon, to those who sat at tables laughing and talking with one another, to artists who made balloon animals and took photos, there was a spirit of unity and harmony.

But the event ended in a way that demonstrated the unity and harmony that some may not have realized was present. Members of our traditional choir and our praise band came together at the front of the room to lead the entire group in singing, “Now Thank We All Our God.” Everyone willingly and happily joined hands together all the way around the room in an outward demonstration of unity and harmony.

God demonstrates unity and harmony in many and various ways. When His baptized people come together there is no greater unity and harmony here on earth. It isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s even ugly and death-defying.

The ecosystem of God’s church ought to be demonstrated far more than it often is. 

Where do you see harmony and unity demonstrated in the church, or otherwise?

I am Jean Valjean (and So Are You)

I am Jean Valjean, and so are you.

On Christmas Day our whole family went to see Les Mis. For me, the most powerful and striking scene (amongst many) was toward the beginning after Jean Valjean is released from prison. He had been serving years of hard time for stealing a loaf of bread. He can’t get anyone to take him in or give him a job. Finally, a priest takes him in. Valjean looks awful. He’s dirty, unkempt, tired, and so hungry that he eats his food like an animal. The nuns watch in horror. At just about that time the priest calls him an “honored guest.”

Grace 2

At that moment I realized that I am Jean Valjean. I saw myself dirty, unkempt, tired, and hungry…completely needy. In the eyes of the Master that is what I am. And not just me, but every human being. None of us deserve to be taken in.

I am Jean Valjean hanging my head in shame knowing that I do not even deserve to eat the crumbs from my Master’s table. But when I sit at the table I gorge myself like there will be no next meal. I need the food that He provides. I need it so badly that when I sit at the table I cannot get enough.

And then, like Valjean, I take for granted what my Master gives and try to steal more. As if He hadn’t already given me everything I need and more I abscond with what I don’t deserve.

Then, like the priest in Les Mis, my Master gives me everything I don’t deserve…and even more. 

I am Jean Valjean, a sinner of my own making, in need of a gracious Master. He has found me. Rescued me. Fed me. Forgiven me. And given me a purpose for living.

I am Jean Valjean. 

And so are you.

Come to my Master’s Table. He will welcome you.

Without question. Without cost. Completely undeserved.

With full grace and forgiveness.

I will always be His honored guest. 

And so will you.


What literary or movie character reminds you most of God’s great grace?

How to Make a Difference Where It’s Really Needed

We hear too much of it lately. Last week in our suburban Orlando community, a man went into a beauty salon with a gun, killed his girlfriend and two others, then went home and turned the gun on himself. In light of these kinds of events a community feels helpless.

Within a day or two, one of the local pastors contacted me asking if we might want to get other clergy together and have a prayer vigil. So we did some quick planning, inviting, and writing. We brought members of our churches. First responders attended. The mayor of our city was there. Media covered the event as well.

We did the only thing that could be done in such a seemingly helpless and hopeless situation. We prayed.

After the vigil, everything honestly seemed the same. People milled around. The family’s of the victims were still missing their loved ones. Reporters did some more interviewing. The fire truck and ambulance pulled away. A few people left remembrances at the front of the beauty salon.

Everything was actually now different. Faithful people prayed. The Lord listened. And He will answer those prayers. He promises to do so.

We prayed for healing, peace, for our first responders, and for hope. I, for one, believe that the Lord is the One who gives all of those gifts:

  • Those who hurt are healed by His grace, sometimes using the instrument of modern medicine or psychological therapy, sometimes using miraculous means.
  • Those who need peace will receive it from the only source of true peace.
  • First responders are themselves a gift from God. He uses them to protect us and to bring us help when we need it.
  • Those who need hope, even in desperate situations will receive it from the promise of eternal life through Jesus who gave His life to secure certain and lasting hope.

In the end, we didn’t make a difference. A difference was made because God was and is present through His Word which brings healing, peace, protection, and hope.

Where do you see the need for a difference to be made?

Three Steps For Laying a Firm Foundation

The best way to begin anything is to build a foundation. Big or small, everything needs a foundation. Two important foundations are being built in my life right now, and I’m learning important lessons from both of them.

Construction crews are building a foundation on our new home. In addition, the people of Ascension Lutheran Church and I are building a foundation for our common ministry together.

Here in Florida the ground is too swampy for basements, so a house begins with a slab. It’s a nice flat, firm, level place on which to build the house. In order to withstand hurricane force winds, cinder block is used for the lower portion of the home, and then steel straps are pulled through the cinder block to the roof to hold everything down. A great deal about home construction was learned after the devastating hurricane Andrew in 1992. I’m glad that we get to reap those benefits. Our construction manager tells us that our roof will be able to withstand winds of 140 mph, or more.

We’re laying a slab at Ascension, too. It has to be done in a way similar to the building of a house:

  • Pour the slab.
  • Lay the blocks, one by one.
  • Secure it so that it weathers the storms.

We are pouring the slab by measuring the perimeter, pouring carefully, and smoothing it all out. The slab is being poured through a series of listening sessions where Ascension members are getting the chance to respond to twenty questions about the history of the church. They get to consider the past, think about the future, and do a little dreaming. We are measuring the perimeter by keeping in place boundaries. We are staying within the boundaries of the way things are currently being done. As a wise pastor once told me, “Don’t make any major changes for a year.” And we are smoothing it all out by sharing a great deal of fellowship time with one another (thanks to the hospitality of these great people).

We are laying the blocks one by one in a very intentional way. This is happening through one-on-one conversations and in small group settings. I’m developing relationships with people so that I get to know them personally, and they get to know me. We cannot truly move forward together until we all know each other well, and understand that each of us are fighting personal battles and glorying in personal triumphs.

Finally, we are securing it all, not with steel straps, but with the most important fastener of all: Love. When we listen to one another, learn from each other, get to know our common joys, sorrows, and triumphs, we cannot help but love one another. We are bound together with the greatest love of all, the Love of God that never falls or fails.

It is that love which will help us together weather any storm. And there will be storms. But we will learn from them, and they will make us stronger.

But it all starts with a solid foundation.

What other ingredients would you add to the construction of a firm foundation?

How I’m Learning that the Prayer of the Righteous Availeth Much

I must not be very righteous. “The prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16).

You see, I’ve been praying a great deal recently for one specific thing. No, really. I’ve been praying as I fall asleep at night. When I wake up in the middle of the night. When I wake up in the morning. As I drive my car. As I remember throughout the course of the day.

One specific thing. The way I wanted it to be. …According to the Lord’s will, of course. But, really, the way I wanted it to be.

I knew how I really wanted it to be, the way I wanted it to turn out, according to my own perfect will. I, I, My.

Guess what. It didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to. Completely different. Having an impact on my very life.

I know I’m not “righteous.” And this reminded me.

Not my will, by Thy will be done. It always will be that way…His way…whether I like it or not.

He is righteous and I am not. He created the universe and knit it together, and I did not. He used an old man to create a chosen nation, and I did not. He parted the waters of the Red Sea, and I did not. He had a plan to save the world, executed it (literally!), carried it out, and I did not.

He knows best. And I do not.

But that doesn’t mean I should stop praying. The righteous blood of Jesus covers over me. It is because of the Righteous Man that prayer does, indeed, avail much.

The blood of Jesus means that God Almighty hears my prayer. And He answers it. And He know what’s best. Always.

And I do not.

I have to remind myself of that over and over again.

How has the Lord recently answered your prayers?

3 Tips for Managing Expectations

Have you ever anticipated something only to find that it was completely different from what you expected?

  • The pictures on the web site of the vacation home were taken at night, lit like a Christmas tree, from across the lake. When you drove up, it looked completely different.
  • The conference registration promised a mountaintop experience. Your idea of a mountaintop and theirs ended up being completely different.
  • The reviews of a restaurant  led you to think it would be a completely mediocre experience. To you it became one of the best places you had ever been.

For months I had been thinking, dreaming, envisioning, and contemplating what life would be like beginning a new ministry in a new place. I had certain pictures of the place, the people, and my own activities and attitudes. I had a very complete picture in my mind.

Now that I am here and I have actually settled in, things are different from what I expected. Not at all worse, or even better. Just different. I am finding that I have to manage my expectations and keep at the forefront of my mind the goals and dreams that I had when I rolled into town.

To do that, I am making sure to these three things:

  1. Following a written plan. Before I rolled into town I wrote a 100 day plan that would be my guide through my first few months. I make sure to consult it daily and see to it that I live up to my own expectations.
  2. Listening and learning from the people who have been living the reality I have now entered. I am putting together listening sessions in my new congregation so that I can learn the thoughts, dreams, hopes, and ministry goals of the people who have a vested interest in Ascension Lutheran Church and its ministry. Their thoughts both ground me and give me a launching point to move forward in an intentional way.
  3. Adjusting my expectations to meet reality. A fun part of managing prior expectations is looking at the places where they meet with reality, and adjusting accordingly. It’s a fun exercise that brings lofty ideas down to the plane of “rubber-meets-the-road” ministry. It actually gives everyday work direction and impetus to bring some of those loft hopes, dreams, and goals to fruition.

If you’re trying to manage expectations: 

  1. Write down your plan.
  2. Listen and Learn.
  3. Adjust expectations.
Your expectations may even be greater than the ones you initially envisioned.
How do you manage expectations?

Are You Listening?

This week I begin work in a brand new place with brand new people. The first thing I’m going to do is listen. But the listening is going to be ongoing…and very focused.

I have recently been reading a book called Church UniqueThe premise is that each congregation has very specific gifts and resources. When those are narrowly focused and emphasized, it brings all work and ministry together moving in one direction and seeking a common end.

My listening will begin by paying attention to the things that make this new place unique.

How about you? What is it that makes you, your vocation, your place of employment, your ministry, unique? Begin by asking the questions suggested by Church Unique:

  • What are the unique needs around your geographic area?
  • How are these needs reflected socially, economically, ethnically, environmentally?
  • What special opportunities are found within your immediate sphere of influence (within a half-mile)?
  • What is the most significant change in your community in the last decade, and what needs or opportunities do they create?
  • What are the largest community events, and what needs or opportunities do they create?
  • Because of your specific location, what solution could you provide that no one else does?
  • What one positive change in your community would have the most dramatic effect in people’s lives?

When you answer these questions, you will have a starting place, a focus, and and plan.

What questions would you ask to help you become a better listener?

3 Necessary Components of Intentional Sabbath

Recently given the chance, I have had the opportunity to sleep nine, ten, or even eleven hour nights. That’s extremely unusual for me. I find it difficult to sleep late anymore. But I guess my body has been telling me that it needs rest. It’s been a physically and emotionally exhausting couple of months.

We had the struggle of making a major life decision. We have packed our entire house, purged many of the contents, and put the rest of the contents in a POD. I carried out the emotional task of writing and sharing a final sermon with my beloved church family of the past fifteen years. We said goodbye to our house, our neighbors, and many friends. And now there’s the uncertainty of living in a new place, serving a different congregation, and trying to find a job for my wife, Tammy.

I’m tired.

Anticipating such a season, I intentionally planned some down time between finishing my ministry at Mt. Calvary, and starting a new ministry at Ascension Lutheran in Casselberry, Florida. I knew I would need it physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Sabbath is necessary. So necessary that the Lord Himself “rested” on the Seventh Day. The Eighth Day was the First Day of the New Creation.

As far as I’m concerned, “sabbath” isn’t just sitting around watching TV. Even sabbath has intentionality to it. My personal sabbath between ministries provides me a number of opportunities:

  1. To reflect on what has past. During these days I have spent some time thinking about all that was accomplished over the past fifteen years, failures, successes, false starts, and great triumphs. History is important. It informs the future.
  2. To enjoy the moment. During these days I am enjoying spending time with my parents, taking a short trip to northern Wisconsin with Tammy where her parents have a home and will be with us for a few days, catching up on some reading that I’ve wanted to do, doing a little writing, and trying to get back in shape by restarting my running habit.
  3. To anticipate what lies ahead. During these days I am trying to learn how to start a new pastorate. It’s been a long while since I’ve done so! I’m writing down thoughts and goals. I’m reading books that will help provide direction as Ascension and I start our journey together. I’m even trying to come up with a 100 day plan so that I can measure my goals as I begin in a new place.

I guess you could say this is sort of a “Seventh Day” rest for me. Pretty soon it will be the Eighth Day, the day of a “new creation” set before me and the people of Ascension. I plan to be rested and ready to go when July 8th arrives.

What does an “intentional sabbath” look like to you?

10 Ways for a Congregation to Show Love for Their Pastor

“The Long Goodbye” ended yesterday. After more than fifteen years serving one congregation, the people of Mt. Calvary invited me back for one last service of celebration and a luncheon in my honor. The service included an incredible sermon by The Rev. Dr. Patrick Ferry, president of Concordia University — Wisconsin, Elders’ Blessings, and a Farewell and Godspeed. The reception included a Milwaukee Brewers and Green Packers themed luncheon. There was tail gate type food, bobble heads on all the tables, kind words from various speakers, greetings too many to mention, and the extremely thoughtful gift of the Spanish version of Rosetta Stone software, because I’m headed to a place where that just might come in handy.

But the congregation to which I am now former pastor, did much more than just love me on my last day. They loved me throughout my fifteen years in that place. Here are ten of the ways:

  1. Early in my tenure they sent me to Israel for eighteen days. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. The memories and things I learned were almost beyond comprehension.
  2. My family and I were remembered each Christmas with generous words and generous gifts. Our holidays were always made special by the people of Mt. Calvary.
  3. The Elders always cared for me as a person, not just as a pastor. These men were genuine in their concern. The chair of the board often took me out for lunch “just because.”
  4. When I had an emergency appendectomy, members prayed and provided unique ways to pass the time. I remember being given a homemade CD with some “get well” music on it.
  5. To express her love, one member would occasionally leave brownies for me after church on Sunday mornings. Yum!
  6. They followed along even at some of the darkest hours. When a massive (for us) building project seemed dead in the water, they came with me as I did all I knew to do: move forward.
  7. Though I may not have always deserved it, they complimented me amongst the church-at-large and in the community. It’s like complimenting one’s child right in front of her. It is a “self fulfilling prophecy.” People love to be told they are doing well.
  8. Tools were provided for me to improve in ministry. They gave me ample budgets for books and periodicals, support staff of the highest quality, and leeway to experiment with creativity.
  9. They loved me enough to graciously let me go, following a Call to another place. That is love of the highest kind.
  10. They provided a three-month sabbatical that was, professionally speaking, one of the greatest things to happen to me. I was tired, on the verge of being burned out, and in need of renewal. Following the sabbatical I came back refreshed, full of energy, and ready for more ministry.

Love is often undeserved. I’m reminded of Luke 17:10 which says, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” But loved I was, and loved we were…my family and me. For that we will be always grateful to the people of Mt. Calvary.

How have you shown love to your pastor?