Words Of My Mouth

Psalm 19 – The 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for September 16, 2012

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork…” Psalm 19:1

O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your presence, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

I’ve spoken the above prayer—a personally altered version of Psalm 19’s final verse—at the start of (nearly) every sermon I’ve preached.

Using Psalm 19’s conclusion is a nod to the person who most influenced my preaching style. My friend Don Fado also prayed a variation of Psalm 19:14 before his sermons. As a college student, first listening to Don, I admired his enthusiasm and vulnerability while he proclaimed the Gospel. When I became an ordained pastor, I had no qualms about “borrowing” a mentor’s use of a Psalm verse.

Using Psalm 19’s conclusion calms me prior to the unleashing of the sermon’s words. Like latching a seatbelt before driving away, it’s a habit providing security and familiarity. Without a seatbelt, I feel funny…off…incomplete. And for good reason! After all, there’s a greater chance of dying in a car crash than by a lightning strike or bee sting*. Driving a few miles for groceries or across the country can be one of the most dangerous things I do. And yet, I view preaching as a more dangerous activity. Maybe my words won’t prevent or cause bodily harm, but any preacher can craft sentences to heal souls and soothe worries. Preachers also possess the unnerving power to topple over-confident egos or pose sharp-edged Gospel questions to shred the self-serving answers of complacent pew dwellers. If a sermon can’t add to the healing of a troubled heart or pull the rug from under a narcissistic buffoon, why bother to open your mouth? Of course I’m a fool to think I could make a difference in another’s life by stringing together a few thoughts in a sermon. However, I’m a worse fool not to believe I couldn’t. Continue reading →

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Am I Not Entering Holy Ground?

Did my red socks display jolly Santas, lush Christmas trees or singing angels?

I don’t remember. I’ve worn and worn out many festive socks over the years.

Toes are getting a bit thin from these "veteran" socks!

Advent’s Third Word: WITNESS!

But I recall the snow, my December breath adrift like a miniature cloud, the long tramp from the driveway to their house. An hour or so outside of Madison, Wisconsin, the brittle night air contains the smell of cattle from the barn as my footsteps crunch on the icy path leading to the front door.

I also don’t remember who answered. His teenaged daughter? His wife? His brother from the next farm over?

“I’m Larry,” I say. “I had called and asked–”

“Yes, of course, come inside before you freeze. We’re glad you came.”

I entered a home I’d never been to before, and shook the hand of a stranger. In my faulty memory I can’t be sure if the friendly hand grasping mine was the daughter, wife or brother, but I certainly felt welcomed. Other family members voiced their greetings. An unseen Christmas tree cast splinters of red and green light against the wall. Evidence of baking, maybe cookies, teased my nose.

Someone offered to take my coat. Then, after a cleared throat, one of my greeters quietly asked, “Could you take your shoes off?”

They gestured toward the entryway floor. Work boots, clogs, running shoes and other footwear rested on a throw rug. I shrugged off my shoes and added them to the mix. Especially in a Midwest winter, a season of mud and snow and ice, this wasn’t unusual. Removing shoes helped in the battle for a clean house.

With my Advent/Christmas socks obvious, I padded into the living room, accompanied by members of the family. Everyone glanced at my feet, at those Santas or singing angels prancing against a bright red background. A Christmas tree anchored a corner, across from the fireplace. There was a sofa, several chairs and a hospital bed.

His wife said to me, eyes unblinking, voice strong, “This is John. He’s so looking forward to meeting you.” Continue reading →

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Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 – The 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time – for November 6, 2011

“…it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery….” (Joshua 24:17)

I remove the phone from its cradle and press numbers on the keypad.

Tap-tap-tap . . . quite often I’ll stop before the seventh digit. I pause. I pray (sometimes silent, sometimes a few muttered words) for the one I’m about to talk with even though I’ve never met them. What will I say to this person—a spouse, parent, child, friend—who has experienced the death of a loved one?

Like so many places within the Bible, I’ll repeat again and again the same story. For example, the tale of trusting God and casting off the bonds of slavery is told and retold ad nauseam in scripture. No, that’s not a fair description; exodus is repeated with abundance and fidelity for it is a central story in the human and Holy relationship. Few aspects of what it means to trust God, to choose a hopeful future over a hurtful past, are demonstrated as well as retelling the escape from the Egyptians and the journey through the wilderness. Joshua 24:17 declares, “…it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery….” Psalm 78:4 emphasizes, “…we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord…” These readings appear as two of the four scripture lessons on the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time. Indeed, they seem “ordinary” since exodus is the oft-told memory and promise in two hundred—or two thousand—other Biblical accounts.

Since last August my volunteer work at a Fresno-area hospice has focused on bereavement calls. I am a small voice in the team of professionals and volunteers supporting a family before, at, and following a loved one’s death. Bereavement begins when a client/patient has died. A first contact is made weeks after the last breath. A final call comes prior to the first anniversary of the death. A series of regular mailings—with reassuring comments and suggestions for self-care—conclude in the month after the anniversary.

Quite often I don’t talk to the client.

The phone is disconnected. After all, death frequently sets in motion radical changes for an individual or family.

No one answers the phone. Since calls are made during “work hours,” the person is away at job, school or errands . . . and I’ll leave a message.

Many people these days either have no answering machine (tired of all those computer-generated requests for money) or never answer because they screen calls. Occasionally I suspect the person I’m seeking chooses not to answer. It’s too painful, too unsettling, and so my voice echoes in a kitchen or bedroom while another listens, unable to leave the sound of my voice. Continue reading →

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