What Velma Taught Me about Communion

“We can have communion together,” I said to Bill over the phone. We were discussing meeting at the Alzheimer’s group home where his wife of over 60 years, Velma, was a resident.

“I don’t think she will understand what she’s doing,” Bill warned.

“She’s had communion many times before, right?” I asked, knowing they had been committed Christians for a very long time.

“Oh, yes,” he said.

“Then I’m certain the Lord wouldn’t mind if she took communion, even if she doesn’t fully grasp what she’s doing.”

A few hours later we were gathered around a small circular table in the dining area. Velma sat there, a blank look on her face, as I set out the little cubes of bread and small cups of juice in front of each of us.

I gave a prayer of preparation. As I tried to place the cube of bread in Velma’s hand, I repeated the words of Jesus, “This is my body broken for you; eat this in remembrance of me.”

She clenched her hand, rejecting the bread. “She often resists eating,” Bill said. Then, before partaking of his own bread, he got up from his chair, took her bread and gently but firmly pushed it between her pursed lips. “Chew now,” he said softly under his breath.

The same with the cup. “This represents my blood shed for you. Drink this in remembrance of me.” Bill became Velma’s cup bearer and put it to her lips, cupping his hand under her chin as he did so. Lips tightly shut eventually gave way enough for the liquid to seep past. She swallowed.

I repeated the words of a song certainly familiar to her, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” and then the words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” A closing prayer and our time of communion was concluded.

As I left the Alzheimer’s home I realized I had been on holy ground. During my years of pastoral ministry I’ve led in the celebration of Communion countless times, both before the public assembly of the congregation and in the more intimate setting of a shut-in’s home, a hospital room, a nursing home or, as in this case, a group home.

In sharing Communion I remind all of us participants of how the celebration speaks of God’s grace through the giving of His Son and the gift of salvation. This particular celebration of Communion, however, revealed God’s grace to me as never before. Eat and drink in remembrance of me, Jesus had said. But Velma could no longer remember. No matter; the elements of bread and cup were given to her in love by her husband and pastor anyway. We remembered for her.

Velma unknowingly gave her pastor a fresh experience of the Lord’s Supper that afternoon. When we find ourselves before the bread and the cup of the Lord we can fool ourselves into believing we have a great hunger and deep thirst for God. But from heaven’s perspective we have a meager desire at best and are too easily satisfied.

Still, God comes to us, even when our hands are clenched against receiving more of His bread of life and our lips pressed tightly against receiving more of His new wine. He is lovingly insistent we partake of more of Him. That’s our God, full of grace and mercy! I learned that from sharing communion with Velma.

Facebook vs. Books & Facebook Wins?

During my pastoral ministry I was fairly intentional about reading books. I had the goal of reading the first hour in my church office each mornig. I didn’t always achieve that goal, but it helped just having it in mind.

This blog focuses on the pastor’s heart. One of the genres I attempted to dive into regularly in my reading were the kinds of books that would nurture my heart and soul.

True confession time: Now I’m retired, and I read less than I did when I was pastoring full time! Part of the problem is that I now have facebook, something that wasn’t in existence during my pastoral ministry and therefore not a temptation.

One of my favorite authors, Philip Yancey, has written on this new reality of reading fewer books. You can check out his blog post here .

I’ve determined I’m going to raise the bar when it comes to reading book. A good book can do the heart good, especially the pastor’s heart!

It’s Not All About The Pastor

“It’s not all about you” are the often quoted opening words of Rick Warren’s best selling book The Purpose Driven Life. I need the reminder of these words when I reflect on my ministry and my responsibilities as a preacher and pastor.

Yes, being a pastor to the Lord’s people and the preacher/teacher of God’s Word to His people are serious and heavy responsibilities. There’s the sobering statement by the apostle James,Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1)

The other side of this coin is that every human being is ultimately responsible for their own relationship with the Lord and spiritual growth. It’s good for us pastors to remember this.

Why do we take on this extra burden of feeling as if we the pastors are ultimately responsible for the spiritual development of the people of our congregations? Could it be because it makes us feel important? Perhaps our parishioners have communicated to us that their spiritual health is primarily our responsibility. Or maybe we’ve successfully communicated this to the people and the expectation has boomeranged back on us. The result can be an unhealthy co-dependent pastor/people relationship.

The pastoral ministry has enough burdens without us adding the burden of believing that the spiritual development of the people of our flock falls primarily on us. These words are a gentle reminder to those of us who are pastors that every believer is responsible for his or her own prayer life, study of the Word, growing passion for Christ, and living out of a God-honoring life-style. The Good Shepherd has called us to be His assistant shepherds, but all we can do is lead His sheep to still waters and green pastures. We can’t make them drink or eat; they have to do that for themselves. Oh, what a relief that is! It’s not all about us!

“He [Jesus] also said, This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.‘” (Mark 4:26-28)

Being Good Stewards of Our Time, Talent, Treasure AND Troubles

Well-known minister and writer Frederick Buechner shared with a small group a portion of a piece of fiction he had written. It became clear to his listeners that, though fictional, the story revealed something of the deep hurt Buechner himself had experienced being raised in a home with an alcoholic and abusive father. After the reading a man in the group came up to him, deeply moved, and told Buechner, “You have a good deal of pain in your life, and you have been a good steward of it.” (from Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons by Frederick Buechner)

I wonder, are we good stewards of our pain? As a preacher for 40 years I often taught or preached on being good stewards of the time, talent, and treasure the Lord has given us. I now see I should have added a fourth “t” to the list: troubles.

What does that mean, that we can be a good steward of our troubles and pain? As a pastor of God’s people over these many years I’ve identified several ways I’ve seen how people have profited from their pain that we can apply to our own lives.

First, troubles can drive us to God. Looking back on my ministry I don’t recall a single person who started attending church and stated as the reason, “Life is going so well for me that I just had to better connect with God who has blessed me so.” On the other hand, countless were the people who showed up for the first time at church and shared with me, “Something terrible has happened in my life and I needed to reach out to God.”

Second, troubles can make us a better person instead of a bitter person; the choice is ours. I have known many people who have had multiple serious troubles in their lives and yet, in spite of all the pain, were beautiful, joyful, enthusiastic, and gracious.

Third, troubles that God has helped us cope and deal with give us the compassion and resources necessary to come alongside and help someone else going through similar troubles. Our troubled past can be of help to someone’s troubled present.

I know, when we’re in the midst of some troubling situation it’s hard to see how any good can come of it, but this is one place where faith has to come into play, believing God has a purpose in it all. Yes, it’s God’s will and His plan for us that we not only be good stewards of our time, talent, and treasure, but also of our troubles!

If I get the opportunity to preach on stewardship again, I’m going to include the stewardship of troubles. The bigger challenge is to be a good steward of pain in my own life!

“Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up.” (Psalm 71:20)

Long Term Results

I received an e-mail from a woman named Jodi who had briefly attended our church 30 years ago. She wrote, “Something extremely important happened during my time there [at our church].” She went on to describe how she had volunteered to help in a ministry, but that I had made a visit to her home and told her she could not be involved in ministry because she was living with a man to whom she was not married. She wrote that she was “devastated emotionally” and that the next Sunday she cried throughout the service. Apparently she stopped attending soon thereafter.

I don’t remember Jodi or the incident, though throughout my nearly 40 years of ministry I have had a number of difficult conversations with folks who were living a non-repentant lifestyle contrary to the holy ways of Christ and yet wanted to serve in some ministry. How I hated to make those visits!

Jodi then wrote in her e-mail, “But here is my thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for telling me the truth about my sin. Thank you for caring enough about me to let me know that repentance was the only way to the Lord ~ truly to the Lord. When I think back on my journey to come to know and love the Lord, you stick out most predominately in my mind and heart. Even since that time, there have been VERY few people willing to speak God’s truth into my life in the kind of bold way that you did.”

What a blessing to see the fruit from painfully planted seed 30 years ago! Pastoring can be a real challenge when we have to do the difficult thing and there’s no apparent immediate positive results. In fact, we often get some strong push back or people may even leave the church (as Jodi did). The e-mail from Jodi was a good reminder that we’re not always going to see short-term results. Sometimes we’re called to sow seed that will take years to produce fruit. God’s timing often is not our timing.

Perhaps we don’t see more immediate positive reinforcement for our efforts, more fruit to our labors, because it would go to our heads. I’m wondering that when we get to heaven (and our heads can no longer swell in pride), if part of the joy of heaven will be God revealing to us the wonderful ways He used us here on earth of which we were unaware.

In the meantime, we’re to keep carrying out our calling. We may not see the fruit to our labors, but as long as we seek to remain His faithful servants we should count it a good day!

Not Knowing What We’re Doing (Though God Does)

Saw this on facebook. Thought if fit with the post below it.
Whoever this pastor is, I hope he keeps smiling!

notknowing

 

Clueless Clergy

mr_magooIt was a congregation of about 15 people in the assisted living dining hall turned sanctuary. I wasn’t the preacher, but was a member of the congregation, along with my wife, her three siblings, their mother (my mother-in-law), and the three other in-laws. Along with us nine, there were about six residents of the facility in attendance. Our family was with Mom, one of the residents, because her husband had passed away a couple of days earlier, and we had all gathered for the coming funeral.

The preacher was the pastor of the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church from nearby Hardwick, Minnesota. His wife played the piano as he led us in worship. The pastor was clueless to the fact that seven of the children and in-laws (excluding me) were musicians of one kind or another, all read music and sing in four-part harmony. To say the least, the family added a great deal to the congregational singing that Sunday afternoon, a virtual choir singing before the pastor as he stood behind the lectern. It was to his benefit that he was also clueless that there were two ordained ministers in the small congregation (me and my brother-in-law). I wouldn’t have wanted to know such a fact before the service if I were in his place.

He preached a great message. It was about having trust in God for this life and hope in heaven for the life to come. It was right on! Then, as an example, he said, “God is there for a wife who’s lost her husband and has four adult children who all live at a distance.” Okay, I thought, one of the family members must have had a conversation with him before the service and so he knew the circumstances of the extended family before him. I found out after the service that such was not the case! He was clueless, but he had nailed it with his example, not knowing that my mother-in-law had just lost her husband and that all four of her adult children lived at a distance! Amazing!

This experience was just another reminder to me that we pastors are often clueless as to how God is using our ministry. We pray about what we should preach and how best to minister, asking for God’s direction and help; then give it our best shot. We often wonder afterward if we hit the mark, if we’ve impacted people much at all. Sure, people sometimes say nice things but, really, did we make a difference?

It seems to me that we’re much like the cartoon character Mr. Magoo, only the opposite. Nearly blind Mr. Magoo meandered through his day oblivious to barely missing serious injury and death while leaving chaos and destruction behind him. We minister Magoos meander through our ministry and, by the grace of God, are often oblivious to the blessings God scatters in the path behind our pastoring. We are clueless clergy, and it’s by God’s design that we are!