10 Things Millennials DON’T Say About Church*

millennialsI have a lot of millennials in my life: my own children and their friends, nieces and nephews, youth from churches where I’ve served, plus college students I’ve met through ministry. I Snapchat™ and text, Facebook™ and Instagram™. I also visit students on their campuses and I meet them for coffee, lunch, or walks in the park. I’ve had lots of conversations with these folks over the years and since I’m in the business, we talk a lot about church. Despite all the time I’ve spent with them though, there are a number of things I’ve never heard millennials say about church. Here are a few of them.

  1. I just got so tired of people taking me out to lunch. Every single time I went to that church, they wanted to feed me. Sometimes they even invited me to their houses for home-cooked meals. I can’t be giving up my meals in the cafeteria like that; and anyway, what would I do with all my extra money?
  2. The Bible studies were just too engaging. I wanted thin theology and all I got was deep study and thought provoking discussion.
  3. I got sick of everyone remembering my name. What I really wanted was to attend church and have the exact same people greet me week after week with, “Hi, what’s your name? College? Year? Major?” I love answering those questions every Sunday.
  4. The church I attended felt too much like a warm community. They cared about me and about each other. I prefer to be a part of a large group of cold individuals.
  5. They always sent me care packages. Seriously, how many homemade cookies can one millennial eat?
  6. I felt too connected there. That church included me as an active part of ministry. I’d much rather be a project than a partner.
  7. The church was too open to my doubts and questions. If I had stayed at that church, I felt like I might experience true spiritual formation.
  8. I hated that the sermons challenged me to deeper understanding of God and that the music moved me spiritually. It was as if the worship leaders prayed over the content of the service and followed God’s leading.
  9. The ministers of the church wanted to get to know me. They were interested in my concerns and helped me wrestle with challenging theological issues. Stop caring about me, already!
  10. The people at that church were way too genuine. They were just too committed to living the lives God called them to live.

Nope, I’ve never heard any of those things. But, what I have heard makes me believe that in many ways, millennials are not that different from Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, or even first century believers. They want to break bread with us (particularly if it’s good bread and includes an entrée along with it). They want to follow Jesus and they want to know how to do that. They want to be a part of Kingdom work—not just for the sake of the hereafter but on earth, today–just as it is in heaven.

Oh, and they’d prefer we lose the label. They’d rather us just call them by name.

*This piece was first published on April 6, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.

You > College Admissions Results

You are more than college admissionsWhen it comes to college admissions, the question has never been “Will Tracie* be admitted to the college of her choice?” It was only, “Who will pay her the most to go to their school?”

After all, Tracie is less than 200 points shy of a perfect 2400 on her SAT; she’s made the highest possible score on all five AP Exams she’s taken; she has a solid GPA; she has studied abroad; and she’s even started her own small business. No one thought Tracie would be denied admission anywhere.

Yet, she’s heard from all four schools to which she applied. She was admitted to one: her last choice, her safety school. She’s wait-listed at one and denied—flat-out rejected—by the other two. Crazy.

Caveat: All along, I’ve thought Tracie should choose the state school closer to her home. It is an excellent university and I think she will thrive there.  And anyway, I never have cared for those exclusive schools with the skinny little admission rates.

Still, I cannot believe she did not get into the schools she dreamt of attending. It makes no sense. But then, the fact is the admissions process is not fair. It’s just not. You can do everything nearly perfectly, as Tracie did, and still not make the cut. (You can also do very little right and get admitted, but that’s another blog post.) At many schools, when it comes to the final decision, it is almost random selection.

So students (and parents) dealing with college admissions disappointments, listen up. I have something to say (I do go on). You may feel free to read these aloud. Preferably while looking in a mirror.

  1. You are more than the sum of your rejection letters.
  2. There was nothing else you could have done to increase your chances of admittance. Rejection happens for so many reasons unrelated to you. Stop obsessing about what you should have or could have or might have. You gave it your best. You have no reason to be ashamed or regretful.
  3. Maybe you could have done something to get into your dream school. Maybe if you had played a sport or practiced your music more or started a nonprofit to benefit poor orphans in a third world country . . . maybe then . . . . But you know what? Perfection is a lie. It doesn’t exist. So, seriously, make like Elsa and “Let it Go.”
  4. It isn’t fair. Lots of things aren’t though. It’s not fair that some kids have loving parents and some don’t. It’s not fair that health care is available to some and not to others. Lots of things aren’t fair and this is most definitely one of them. It is totally not fair. It stinks.
  5. It’s okay to be disappointed and even sad. You’ve lost something of value. Grief is the natural reaction, so allow yourself to feel the depth of it. Once you touch the bottom, though, push off of it and start swimming for the surface. Just look for the light and keep reaching up.
  6. Do not let this one experience limit who you believe yourself to be. You see, as good as your application was, it didn’t begin to say how awesome you are. Did your application show how easily you laugh? How deeply you appreciate quality music? How enthralled you are by really great writing? Do those admissions officers understand that the way you love your sibling defies all modern logic? That your heart has a greater capacity than most? That you never give up on your friends and that you intentionally form friendships that cross the boundaries of race, religion, and politics? No. They don’t know any of those things. You are beautiful and imperfect, whole and broken, complete and unfinished. You are a multifaceted marvel.
  7. Now allow yourself to hope again. Great things grow out of deep loss. Believe it. Expect it. Your future really is waiting. And you really are enough.

*Name changed for privacy.

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Childhood Cancer and Immeasurable Love

March 2008: Baker's Birthday Party, A fundraiser for Paxten's family

When I tell people that I lost a boy I loved to childhood cancer, questions inevitably follow.

“Your child died of cancer?”

“No, he wasn’t my child.”

“Oh. Your nephew?”

“No. Not a nephew.”

And finally, with a note of incredulity, “Just a friend?” As if that somehow discounts my loss. After all, it’s not like Paxten was related to me.

But you see, I learned something from loving Paxten: you just can’t measure love. It’s not like you have little cups in your heart, different sizes for different relations: venti for your own child, grande for nieces and nephews, and tall for everyone else’s children. It doesn’t work that way. You just love the child. That love gets all mixed in with all the other love in your heart. Loving this one helps you love that one. The love for that one blends with your love for another one.

And you don’t want to lose any of them, because by loving them, your heart has expanded. So naturally then, when one of your beloveds slips away, the space that one occupied becomes hollow—-bulky in its emptiness.

So yeah. Paxten was just a friend. He was a little 3 year-7 month old friend who settled into my heart and claimed his very own spot. It will be five years tomorrow since he died, and that spot is still his. It always will be.

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Freezing Temps Create First World Problems *

first world problemsHave you heard about the record low temperatures we’ve had in North Carolina recently? Well, let me tell you: this weather has caused me some serious first world problems.

For one thing, I couldn’t just go out and get in my Honda Civic and leave. Oh no! I’d have to plan ahead, go out early, and start my car so that it could be defrosting; even then, I still had to scrape off the ice. Also, I don’t have seat warmers in my car. Nope. Sure don’t.

So, on those days when the temperature was in the single digits, I actually had to wear a coat. Seriously: even my warmest wool sweaters weren’t enough! I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand wearing coats. They’re so bulky and inconvenient. You have to find a place to hang them or carry them around all day. Who’s got time for that nonsense? Not me.

But it wasn’t just cold; it was also icy. This meant the roads weren’t safe for large vehicles like the city sanitation trucks. For two weeks I had trash that did not get collected. Two weeks! By the time they finally arrived, I had three bags of recycling in my garage to take to the road. If I’d had to wait much longer, it would’ve taken me two trips. Well, it would have taken my husband two trips. (I wasn’t about to go out in that cold if I could help it!)

What’s that you say? These aren’t real problems? Okay fine. But how many of us complained about stuff like this over the last few weeks? I was certainly a bit more focused on the ways my life was disrupted, than I was on my many privileges.

For example, I never once worried that I would lose my job if I couldn’t safely travel to work. (It never even occurred to me.) I took it for granted that my home would be warm, that my car would start, that the city would come to collect my garbage, and that when I needed hot water, it would be available.

Privilege. It’s something we often fail to notice. It’s like oxygen. We only notice when it’s absent.

But we can do better, can’t we? I know it’s hard, but we really can be more aware, more grateful, don’t you think?

Author Anne Lamott seems to think so. In her book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, she says this:

“I pray not to be such a whiny, self-obsessed baby, and give thanks that I am not quite as bad as I used to be (talk about miracles). Then something comes up, and I overreact and blame and sulk, and it feels like I haven’t made any progress at all. But it turns out I’m less of a brat than before, and I hit the reset button much sooner, shake it off, and get my sense of humor back.”

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

*This piece was first published on March 9, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.

Parenting: High Maintenance/High Praise

Parenting. It takes some energy. Here’s a story from March 2008 when my son Baker was almost 12 that recalls a time when I expended a good bit of energy, but got even more in return.

Middle School Baker

Middle School Baker

My 6th grade son can be very high maintenance. Like this one Wednesday night. Baker had make-up work from being absent one day the previous week, plus it was church night (three hours—gone.) In addition, my husband had been on a business trip and when Daddy is out of town, Baker is out of sorts. Suffice to say that on that night, Baker was putting us through the emotional wringer.

So there we sat at the kitchen table at 9:30 trying to finish his science homework project which included a drawing and a report—both of which he had been working on already but just couldn’t get them finished. I sat here with him for a full hour and a half—he went to bed at 11:00—until he got it done.

“Try starting the sentence with this, Baker. . .”

“The colors look great in your picture—you think you should go over that title with a black pen though?”

“Move on to the next paragraph now. . .”

On and on it went. I was trying to get some work done in between answering his questions, but it seemed that if I took my mind off his task for one moment, he was overwhelmed or distracted. It was painful. I was tired. I had things to do.

Finally the child finished and went to bed, but not before issuing orders: “ Don’t forget to lock the doors, mom. Check the garage door. Make sure you turn on the alarm system. .. .” Help me. Go to bed for the sake of your mother if not for yourself.

Senior Baker

Drum Major Baker November 2013

I went downstairs to lock up, went back by his room to assure him it was done, kissed him goodnight and walked out.

“Mom?”

Heavens what now? Deep breath. Patience restored.

“Yes Baker-boy?”

“I just wanted to thank you so much for sitting at the table with me and helping me get my work done. You know, it’s sad, but some kids don’t have a mother who would do that just for some little science report for their son. Thanks a lot.”

Appreciation is the highest form of prayer, for it acknowledges the presence of good wherever you shine the light of your thankful thoughts.
Alan Cohen 

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6 Things to Say to Your Kids about the Prom

trellace promIt’s March and many of the high school students in my life are planning for prom night. Hear me on this:  I’ve got no problem with the prom itself. I do have a problem with the high expectations for the night and also the exorbitant costs associated with it.

Parents, talk to your children about the prom. Really. A lot of bad choices are made on prom night. Your conversations with them can help them avoid life-altering mistakes. It doesn’t matter if your teens don’t want to hear what you have to say. It doesn’t matter if you find it awkward to talk about these things. Do it anyway.

Here are just a few things you might say to your kids.

  1. The prom is not your wedding. Thus you do not need
    • A professional photographer.
    • A professional hair stylist.
    • A professional anything.
  2. The prom is not your bat mitzvah, quinceanera, or your sweet 16 party. That means
    • You are not the reason everyone has attended the event.
    • You will not be the center of attention. People care a lot less than you may think about how you look. If they do care, that is their problem, not yours.
    • You can have other proms. (Really. Even if you’re a senior. I know plenty of students who went to proms after they graduated.)
  3. The prom is a dance.
    • Wear comfortable clothing so you can enjoy dancing.
    • Wear comfortable shoes for the same reason. (You can, of course, take your shoes off at the prom. But, um, ew.)
  4. The prom is a formal event.
    • Formal does not have to mean pricey.
    • Formal does mean dressy.
    • Formal does not mean sleazy.
  5. The prom is a photo op.
    • Your loved ones will want to take pictures. Lots of them. It’s just the way it is. Accept it.
    • Your not-so-loved ones will be happy to share not-so-flattering pics of you. Behave yourself.

And finally (brace yourself)

  1. Prom night is not your wedding night.
  • You do not need a hotel room.
  • You do not need sexy lingerie.
  • You do not need to have sex.

So teens, go to the prom. Have fun. But don’t make it into the high point of your life. It’s just one night.

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6 Movies That Say Something About God*

Movies and God“For this assignment,” Dr. Danny West said, “I want you to watch a movie and then write a reflection on what that movie says theologically.”

It was one of my first assignments for my Introduction to Preaching class at Gardner-Webb University Divinity School. Ever since then, I’ve been watching movies with that idea in mind. I’m amazed by how often I see theological themes in theater. You should try it! In fact, to get you started, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite examples.

So get some popcorn, sit back, and listen to the testimony of these six films. (Spoiler Alert: if you haven’t watched these awesome movies, first slap yourself, then get to it. You can finish this after you’ve caught up. If you choose to read on anyway, be forewarned: spoilers abound.)

God Restores. Places in the Heart (1984). This classic starring Sally Field tells the story of a young widow trying to make a way for herself and her children in 1930’s America. Field’s character and her community experience all kinds of loss and disconnection, but the movie ends with everyone together in church, celebrating The Lord’s Supper. The choir is singing “This is my story, this is my song; Praising my Savior, all the day long . . .” as the communion elements are passed from person to person and pew to pew. In this scene, we at first see the main characters interacting with each other, but as the Eucharist moves through the congregation, we notice unexpected participants. There’s the boy who died, and the man who killed him; there’s the widow’s husband (supernaturally alive and well), and her farm hand who has recently and permanently left the area. For a moment it’s confusing. But then you realize: it’s a glimpse of the Kingdom. As the congregation comes together at the Lord ’s Table, sinners join with saints, humanity joins with divine, and restoration—if only for a moment—is complete.

God Redeems. Steel Magnolias (1989). Aside from being chocked full of timely and hilarious one-liners, this movie delivers a message of redemption that brings to mind the Gospel promise of salvation. The story takes place mainly in a southern beauty shop. There, good friends face life’s travails—from graying hair to infidelity. In the midst of the mundane, we find Shelby (Julia Roberts), a diabetic whose life is endangered when she becomes pregnant. Her mother M’Lynn (Sally Field), is all but paralyzed by fear and dread. Shelby’s slow decline is heartbreaking and painful. We all hurt with M’Lynn; no parent should have to bury a child. But in the midst of the unimaginable, there is joy in the form of a little boy: Jack, Shelby’s son, M’Lynn’s grandson. When hope seems lost, mercy toddles in with fresh giggles and new life. (Can I get an “Amen?”)

God’s Family Crosses Boundaries. Remember the Titans (2000). Based on a true story, this film set in Northern Virginia in 1971, recalls racial tension in a newly integrated high school football team. Central to the story is the relationship between black defensive end Julius Campbell and white linebacker Gerry Bertier. The film portrays the early days of their relationship as cautious and hostile. As the story unfolds though, they become so close that when Gerry is in a near fatal car crash, he only wants to see one person: Julius. When Julius steps into Gerry’s hospital room, the nurse says to him, “Sorry, only kin’s allowed in here.” Gerry responds, “Are you blind? Don’t you see the family resemblance? That’s my brother.” That’s family; that’s Love—the agapé kind.

God Transforms. Gran Torino (2008). If ever a character has been set in his ways, it is Walt Kowalski. A retired auto worker and decorated Korean War vet who recently has been widowed, Walt has his way of doing things. Routines—orderly routines—keep Walt focused and in control. He takes care of himself. He takes care of his dog. And he doesn’t bother people. He has a few friends; he doesn’t need any new ones. Walt is concretely set in his ways and has no intention of changing. Love has another plan; it sneaks into his life by way of a most unexpected source, and persists, unyielding and determined. That love—it’s like the Hound of Heaven—pursues Walt Kowalski past prejudice and obstinacy, beyond rejection and denial. And Love—as Love always does—wins.

God Calls Imperfect People. How to Train Your Dragon (2010). The movie opens with “This is Berk. It’s twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. It’s located solidly on the Meridian of Misery.” In addition to its unfortunate location, the island of Berk is plagued by a terrible nuisance: Dragons! The dragons steal food from Berk and terrorize the villagers. Here in Berk, we meet a young Viking boy named, of all things, “Hiccup.” Hiccup comes from a long line of great and fierce Viking leaders, but he is still just a boy and not at all ready to be a full-fledged dragon-killing Viking. Nevertheless, Hiccup finds himself in charge of an effort to save his village. He’s the most unlikely candidate for the task, but he’s the one chosen. Because he’s willing to answer the call despite his own insecurities, Hiccup does the impossible. Like Moses did. And David. And Paul.

Godly Community Makes Life Easier. Toy Story 3 (2010). This third installment of the Toy Story Trilogy completes the story of Andy and his toys. Andy is now all grown up and headed to college with no need for childhood playthings. Facing uncertainty, the toys fight to stay together and to find a sense of purpose. Despite their efforts, friends Buzz Lightyear, Woody, and the rest wind up on a conveyer belt headed towards an incinerator. There’s no way out, no hope. As they move slowly and unavoidably towards the fiery furnace and certain death, they reach out to each other. One by one, they clasp hands. The fire rages on. But once they are all connected, something miraculous happens. In their connection, they find peace despite their circumstances. That’s church, my friends; that’s church as Christ intended.

Before that divinity school assignment, I’d never given any thought to God speaking to me through movies. Now that I’m listening, I hear God’s voice nearly every time I watch Netflix™ or go to the cinema. How about you? What movies have you watched lately that delivered not just entertainment, but the abiding truths of God?

 *This piece was first published on February 9, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing on the second Monday of each month at baptistnews.com.

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10 Things that Show You Don’t Get Lent

Lent cross10. You think Ash Wednesday is kind of like “Downtown after Five” in Asheville, only on Wednesday and only once a year.

9. You decide what to wear to Ash Wednesday service by asking yourself, “Now, what goes with ash gray?”

8. You ask the minister if the ashes on your forehead can be reinforced with permanent marker since yours always wash off before anyone really sees them.

7. You keep saying, “What’s the big deal about Lent? Just clean the dryer filter and shut up about it.”

6. You hire a house keeper for the season. (All this ashes to ashes and dust to dust stuff will bother your allergies.)

5. Someone speaks about giving up chocolate for Lent and you, eager to be of assistance, hold out your hand and say, “Well if you’re not going to eat it . . . .”

4. You, a teetotaler, announce that in honor of the Lenten season, you have given up all alcoholic beverages.

3. You give up boasting for Lent and make sure everyone knows about it.

2. You give up sweets for Lent. Except for Fridays when you always have celebratory cheesecake. And Wednesday’s because the desert at church supper is always so yummy. And Tuesdays—Book Club. And in the office (it would just be rude not to partake). And on birthdays. And naturally St. Patrick’s Day. But you’re giving up sweets for Lent. No question.

And the number one way to show you are not taking Lent seriously is . . .

  1. You have your friend film you every time you deny yourself due to Lenten sacrifice. You set the video to the song, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve seen” and post it on YouTube.

The dearest idol I have known,
Whatever that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
and worship only thee…

William Cowper, “O For a Closer Walk with God”

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Parenting: I Want the Scar

IMG_5482 (1)Because she was a big-girl, she didn’t need Mommy to walk her into the classroom. She preferred, instead, to ride in Daddy’s car with her older brother and sister. Moments after they pulled away, I wrote this piece about the angst of parenting: letting go. I thought a re-run was appropriate on this her 17th birthday.

The last few weeks, everything has been about Margaret: the new clothes, the new shoes, the perfect lunchbox and backpack. I’ve smiled and encouraged. I’ve been positive and reassuring. Yep, kindergarten is a good thing and I am truly excited for Margaret.

So today is the day. She has climbed into the back seat with her two older siblings, thrilled to be riding to school with Daddy and the big kids.

“No more pictures Mommy! I’m ready to go!”

And she is ready.

“Have a great day!” I shout as I wave goodbye to the car that has already started down the road.

My voice breaks and I turn to go inside. I move in slow motion, distracted by a physical pain I can’t place. I stop, trying to find the source of the sting. Awareness dawns. It’s this moment. It’s this moment when white knuckles unclench and heart strings snap. Dull and pulsing, sharp and piercing: it’s surreal. I make my way inside to the familiar.

The moments before this one have been wonderful. I loved having babies. I loved the late night feedings. I loved the terrible twos. (I called them the terrific twos.) I loved preschool. I loved the cute things my children said in their innocence, like Margaret insisting she would “stay her shoes on.” I loved that. I loved the way my little ones laughed—at anything. I loved the spontaneous hugs. I loved the dependence.

In the infant days, people often said with a note of annoyance, “Margaret is such a Mommy’s girl. She won’t go to anyone else.” I’d smile and say, contentedly, “Yeah. . .I know. . .” I loved that. The preschool years have been delightful. I don’t want them to end.

Before today, I tried to think of a way to slow things down. I could delay her going to kindergarten a year. I could homeschool. But, in the end, I realized that no matter what I did, these years would still be over; she would still be five years old; she would still be growing up.

So here I am alone, in a quiet, empty house, trying to put words to this ache. But maybe I can’t. Perhaps when the heart takes over the brain, the feeling just won’t be expressed. “This,” the heart says, “this you must feel. You cannot write it or say it, touch it or mold it. You must be here, inside this broken place to understand it.”

Oh puh-lease. Already I challenge myself. Aren’t you over-sentimentalizing again? Maybe. I don’t know. I just know that my words, always so faithful to me, fail me now. And I know that my heart hurts so much that surely it must be broken in there.

I wonder how the healing will take place. Will the skin of one area of my life bridge the gap and connect with the skin of another? And will this healing leave some evidence of itself? I hope so. I want something from this rich, precious time of my life to remain visible. I want a scar.

So I gather photos and artwork, mementoes that once I had little ones. These who are now so independent, were once not so much so. I did the right thing! I remind myself. They are independent; they are confident. Still, I want my heart to show that it isn’t easy to do the right thing. I want the scar.

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Ministry Matters: EMTs in the Sanctuary

ministry altar bibleI’ve only been in the vocational ministry for five years, but if you count my nearly 50 years as a preacher’s kid, that’s a good bit of ministry–or at least church–experience. So I know of what I speak when I tell you that on Sunday, February 1, I came as close to speaking in tongues as I ever have.

I was in the middle of my sermon when an older member of the church who was sitting down to my right, slumped over in the pew. (I told him later that if he didn’t want to hear me preach he could just say so and not cause such a stir.) As it turns out, he had a spell related to heart troubles and once the EMT’s got things straightened out he was fine.

Anyway, there I was preaching on the weekly lectionary text like a good little girl when Dave keels over. It took me a minute to clue into what was happening but when I did, I turned back to the choir and asked a member who is a nurse to attend to Dave. She got up immediately as did another member in the congregation who is a medical professional. Our pastor, who by God’s providence was seated one pew over, went to comfort Dave and his sweet wife of about 60 years.

That left me, mid-sermon, standing at the pulpit in front of a congregation of confusion, fear, and anxiety. I had absolutely no idea what to do.

But the Spirit did. It’s a good thing that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26) In truth, I remember very little of what I said or did. All of it was Spirit led.

Now, it’s true, I was raised in the church and have experienced tense situations before this. I’ve seen my Preacher Daddy deal with emergencies from the pulpit a time or two and have been in other situations where difficulties arose in unfortunate surroundings.

I’ve also had classes on crisis management and read books on the same topic. I’ve studied group dynamics and crowd behavior.

But I’ma tell you right now. The Holy Spirit scooped up all that life experience and book learning and molded it into something far greater than anything I could have accomplished. In the midst of that human crisis, the Spirit interceded and brought Peace to the turmoil.

Hallelujah and to God be the Glory!

(For those who have asked, here’s the manuscript of the sermon–essentially the polished up notes I put together in preparation to preach. Spoiler alert! God wins. By a landslide.)

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